For the third and final leg of the Proms Sibelius symphony marathon, the baton was passed to Osmo Vänskä, with a change of orchestra from the BBC Scottish to the BBC Symphony. Since the death of Paavo Berglund in 2012, Vänskä is simply the finest Sibelius conductor in the world, having immersed himself in this music for decades, refining and rethinking his interpretations. After two evenings where the music-making was less than consistently inspired, hopes were high that the cycle would end strongly. These hopes weren’t entirely borne out.

Osmo Vänskä © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä
© Greg Helgeson

Vänskä put himself through a tremendous aerobic workout on the podium, always on the move. His strengths are the absolute precision of his technique and his immense detail to dynamics, especially in Sibelius’ string writing. The BBCSO strings were a good deal warmer than their Scottish counterparts (not necessarily a good thing – I enjoy my Sibelius with far more ice), but Vänskä teased out some lovely details. The pianissimo paving the way for the sombre bassoon solo in the first movement was velvet soft; the dynamic gradation of the pizzicatos precise, while double basses slapped their strings percussively. Best of all were the ghostlike violins in the finale, scurrying so faintly they bordered on the inaudible.

The rest of the playing left much to be desired. Untidy flutes and garbled oboe didn’t make for an auspicious start to the Fifth. The Albert Hall’s acoustic often smudges woodwind detail, but the fault here lay with poor ensemble. The brass section also lacked cohesion; the great swinging horn call in the finale was not ideally balanced and when the trumpets took over this “swan theme”, there was more unsteadiness.

Things picked up with an elegant, almost balletic Sixth, Vänskä balancing dramatic sweep and urgency with beautifully judged pauses. There was a fine sheen to the violin sound and considerable cello warmth in the finale. Moments of coarse playing from the brass were the only blot on this Nordic landscape.

The Seventh is a curious work, cast in a single, long movement, but one which reveals more of its secrets with repeated listening. Vänskä knows these symphonies better than most, but there was no question of him conducting without a score. In Sibelius’ last word on symphonic form, Vänskä seemed to revel in details: timpani motifs, birdlike flute chirrups, slight string accelerandos, the chugging cello theme towards the close which hints back at Valse triste. Helen Vollam’s trombone solos were dispatched with great dignity.

The Seventh ends almost as unexpectedly as the Sixth, neither offering as fitting a climax to a concert as the Fifth. By presenting the seven symphonies chronologically over three concerts, the tenets of good programming were compromised.

Does the saturation process work in Sibelius? Or with any composer? The Proms has an odd relationship with anniversaries. In 2013, the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner, we were treated to seven lengthy Wagner operas, but not a single one by Verdi. Sibelius and Nielsen celebrate their 150th birthdays this year. Sibelius, a UK concert hall favourite, gets all seven symphonies over three consecutive nights (with Kullervo to follow). Nielsen, whose symphonies aren’t nearly as popular, scores a meagre one: an outing for his Second (The Four Temperaments) this Thursday. Representative? Fair? Spare a thought then for poor Alexander Glazunov, also born in 1865. The last time one of his nine symphonies was played at the Proms? 1919. “Weep, weep, O soul; soul of poor Russia.”