A year celebrating 150 years of both Nielsen and Sibelius has bought about a clutch of cycles across the land. For many listeners Nielsen is more of an adventure, while Sibelius has always held a place in the hearts of UK audiences. At this year’s Proms, Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were given the middle slot in a three concert series of the Sibelius symphonic cycle, with the Third and Fourth Symphonies as strange bedfellows.

Julian Rachlin © Janine Guldener
Julian Rachlin
© Janine Guldener

The first half of the concert featured Sibelius at his most genial, kicking off with a lukewarm performance of the Third. Sluggish tempi all round changed the effect from proto-neoclassicism, which was the composer’s intension, to an attempt at Romantic “bigness” that was inappropriate. The wonderfully light and airy Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto second movement became earthbound at this speed and felt overlong. The final Allegro section of the finale was similarly encumbered and what is the composer's most endearing symphony came across as something of a bore.

Things were considerably improved in the Violin Concerto that followed, with the soloist Julian Rachlin taking hold of the tempi and offering up a bold and supremely virtuosic performance. Only in the slow movement did there seem to be some disagreement between soloist and conductor with Rachlin at his delayed entrance visible pushing the tempo along. A fantastic and generous encore, after such a demanding concerto, of Ysaye’s Sonata no. 3 for solo violin “Ballade” left the audience in doubt of Rachlin’s technical prowess.

The second half of this lengthy concert opened with a BBC commission from the ever interesting Michael Finnissy called Janne, referring to Sibelius’ nickname. Specifically requested to be performed in this concert, Finnissy was left with the task of coming up with the piece that “bridged the gap” between the Finnish master and his own aesthetic. And this he did in a complex and subtle piece which certainly needed more than one hearing to fully grasp. Using the same orchestral forces, but with a splattering of percussion, Finnissy created a sound world that was teetering on the brink of tonality and melodically linked to Finnish folk tune sources. Certainly a piece of substance and one that is worthy of repeated listening.

The concert concluded with the most original, forward looking and beautiful of Sibelius’ symphonies, the Fourth. It is a hard piece to bring off, because it can sound fragmentary with its unconventional formal structures, with only the best performances finding an inner logic that comes from a concentration on precise dynamics and colours.

Volkov certainly made a better job of finding the heart of the piece than he did with the Third. The gaunt tritonal features of the first movement weren’t softened at all, mercifully, and the Scherzo was suitably edgy with an apt tempo. Likewise the Largo found the right pulse but somehow failed to take advantage of its ecstatic climax. One of the great moments in all the composers output, the build up to this climax needs something special from the orchestra to reach that point of rapture it cries out for. And despite a spirited finale rounding off a thoughtful performance, there was still the lingering doubt that there wasn’t enough rehearsal time to do justice to such a full and demanding programme. 

***11