Sibelius’ 150th birthday party at Colston Hall was celebrated with one of Britain’s greatest orchestras and one of the composer's finest conductors as an extension of London festivities. The 82-strong Philharmonia Orchestra, under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy, ruled the roost at one of the highlights of Bristol’s 2014-15 classical music season. High hopes were met, superceding satisfaction.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

The tone poem Luonnotar was easily the highlight of the evening. Finnish soprano Helena Juntenen stunned the audience to silence with her vocal talent. Her dexterous and expressive voice was suited to the challenging solo role that she was singing which spanned no less than two octaves. It left me wishing that Sibelius had completed his projected opera. The instrumentation in this piece of music had a descriptive nature in which each section of the orchestra was serving an entirely different function from the big bold brass to pianissimo strings’ tremolo and harps creating mythological, surreal worlds. The three words on the Colston Hall’s website that sum it up perfectly: “a spellbinding rarity”.

It was hard to pick many faults in the entirety of the concert, but there were two parts of the evening that were less enjoyable than the rest. In the first two movements of the Symphony no. 5 in E flat, there was not so much of a melody to grasp as there was in the first half of the concert, leaving the aural senses rather less satisfied until an ascension into the brilliant finale left the strings and brass in a competitive ringing bell and rhythmic play-off. Secondly, something a little strange happened during the Karelia Suite, where the triangle was unsettlingly loud and out of time. This unfortunately had the effect of rocking the rest of the orchestra out of synchronisation completely for about half a minute. After which the ending was recovered, reaching climactic final chords.

Otherwise the orchestra was completely in the hands of Ashkenazy, the Finlandia concert opener of Finlandia wowing the audience. Every little detail in the score felt as though it had been meticulously considered for an electrifying start to the evening. All parts of the orchestra were spot on cue and impressively diverse with tempo and dynamics whilst still maintaining a big, unified sound. The rich depth of the score was absolutely mastered in the double-basses and brass. Last year Ashkenazy celebrated his fiftieth year as a recording artist with Decca, both as a pianist and conductor. With such a number of years behind him, his performance each time is just as fresh, more so than many younger conductors I have seen. There is much imagination and originality in his work, particularly in the way he translated his movements into music, contorting himself unashamedly on stage. He used every part of his body to portray exactly how he wanted the work to sound and got it just right every time. I could hear sighs in the audience with the immediacy of the lights going up, the evening ending all too abruptly.

****1