The small town of Lahti, some hundred kilometres north of Helsinki, boasts a fine concert hall in a beautiful location on the shore of a lake, and a fine orchestra which has made a specialism of the music of Sibelius. Each year in early September they hold a Sibelius Festival there which presents a selection of the composer’s works ranging from well-known favourites to pieces which are rarely heard. The 2018 Festival include four of the composer’s symphonies, a guest appearance by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and some novelties such as a performance of the String Quartet Voces intimae with a light show.

Dima Slobodeniouk and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra
© Maarit Kyt Aharju

The Festival began with a concert by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under principal conductor Dima Slobodeniouk and the very rarely played Overture in A minor, JS 144. This was written for the concert in 1902 which also included the première of Sibelius’ Second Symphony. The overture begins with a series of trumpet fanfares, unaccompanied until the timpani, trombones and strings join. There follows a much lighter and more cheerful central section until the fanfare theme returns, this time more richly orchestrated. This may not be a major work, but was an appropriately celebratory opening to the festival.

Next came something much more familiar: Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor for which the orchestra was joined by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. She gave a confident, richly expressive account of the concerto. Other performances may be more evocative of landscape or inner feeling but on this occasion it was as if Skride was telling a gripping story, perhaps one of Finnish legendary heroes from the Kalevala, taking us through a range of moods and emotions from the calmly flowing second movement to the energetic conclusion. The audience was hanging on her every note. The focus was very much on the soloist with the orchestra’s contributions generally in the background. She managed the demanding technical requirements of the solo part with apparent ease and thrilled the audience with her virtuosity.

Baiba Skride
© Maarit Kyt Aharju

The second half of the concert contained another infrequently played piece. This was the concert suite that Sibelius made from his incidental music to August Strindberg’s play Swanwhite. The play and incidental music were first performed in 1908 though the play had been written some years earlier. It was a symbolist fairy tale, a genre that had some popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but which is now known only though musical interpretations. Sibelius turned 14 numbers from his incidental music into a seven-movement suite with an enlarged orchestra, losing very little of the musical material. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Slobodeniouk now had their opportunity to shine. The most satisfying of the pieces were the first two: The Peacock and The Harp with some notable orchestral colours and chamber music textures. The entry of the harp and its combination with the strings were particularly noteworthy. Also striking were the dark string sounds of The Prince Alone and the hymn-like conclusion of the Song of Praise. Slobodeniouk and the orchestra gave us as an encore At the Castle Gate from Sibelius’ incidental music to another symbolist fairy tale, Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Thus the orchestral concert ended, but there followed a chamber music performance in the same location: the Piano Trio in A minor (Hafträsk) JS 207, played by the Wellamo Trio. Sibelius had completed the first year of his studies in Helsinki and spent a family summer holiday in 1886 in the tiny village of Hafträsk in the Turku archipelago. The major work of this period is the four-movement piano trio named after the village. It is the work of a student learning his craft. There are suggestions of the individuality that was to develop but also much of the influence of Beethoven and Brahms. The two inner movements were the most characteristic: the relaxed, lyrical second movement and the spirited Scherzo which was given an energetic performance. If the outer movements were less convincing this was still a worthwhile opportunity to hear a major composer at the beginning of his career and a fitting end to the first day of the 2018 Lahti Sibelius festival.