Presiding over the first in a mini-series of Sibelius concerts at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra was Vladimir Ashkenazy who gave firm direction in two repertoire works and the less familiar but complete Lemminkäinen Suite, originating from 1893. Sharing the bill with this much-revised work was Finlandia and the Violin Concerto in D minor, which created a programme spanning a decade of compositional development. There has, of course, been a long-standing association between Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia and their benchmark Sibelius performances were enshrined by Decca to great acclaim some 20 years ago.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

Something of the thrill of those recordings could be heard on Thursday evening in the opening item, Finlandia, where Ashkenazy produced just the right purposeful tempo. The brass section was suitably fruity and, even if by the end the players were a little over zealous, their contributions added spice to this well-worn favourite. If too, Ashkenazy’s stick technique was occasionally indecipherable, this 77-year old had energy in spades with both arms occasionally raised in the air as if demonstrating the art of hanging wallpaper to an apprentice decorator.

There is nothing apprentice, however, about Sibelius’s Violin Concerto; despite its echoes of Tchaikovsky and an early revision prompted by a poor press review after its 1904 première. For this performance, a slimmed-down Philharmonia was joined by Vadim Repin, whose playing demonstrated an impressive technique although intonation took a while to settle. His two cadenzas in the opening movement were dispatched with authority but any sense of personal involvement was absent, his delivery marked more by assurance than ardour. Things fared better in the Adagio where Ashkenazy and his players caught its yearning quality to a tee. The soloist’s tuning had recovered and the pianissimo closing bars were memorable for their blend of tenderness and platform rapport. In the finale Repin appeared to have found fresh inspiration, and prised from his 1743 Guarneri a sweeter tone that had eluded him earlier. Orchestral support was always sensitive, and driving rhythms were invigorated by Ashkenazy’s taut control, tension never slackening for a moment.

Tension flickered intermittently in the musical evocation of seduction, murder, resurrection and triumphant homecoming that is the Lemminkäinen – the young hero drawn from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. It’s an imaginatively scored four movement structure and provides enticing hints of the numbered symphonies yet to follow. Ashkenazy efficiently charted his way through the dense orchestral layers of the opening “Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island”, but despite committed playing, its musical trajectory with its many tempo fluctuations never quite cohered or caught fire. Placing “The Swan of Tuonela” second (just as Sibelius eventually did) made good dramatic sense, not least in dividing the two long movements. Jill Crowther’s cor anglais was suitably mellifluous but the movement’s sense of haunting stillness was largely missing. Matters were not helped by Ashkenazy who pitched straight into the movement (which the printed programme indicated would be third) without allowing the full hall to settle after such an eventful first movement.

Tension returned for the murky waters of an atmospheric “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela”, its eerie Molto lento passage notable for the shimmering strings, side-drum and two flutes, all finely controlled by Ashkenazy. His grip on “Lemminkäinen's Homeward Journey” was also finely controlled and the final Presto, where the Philharmonia were on sparkling form, was an exhilarating romp.