With Susanna Mälkki’s recent track record, the chances of facing works by contemporary composers and Sibelius is likely when she is at the podium. Sunday’s concert – Mälkki’s second with the London Symphony Orchestra – was no exception, as the evening opened with an orchestral piece by Patrick Giguère, the winner of the 2015 Serge Garant Prize and participant of the Panufnik Composers Scheme of the same year, finishing with Sibelius’ triumphant Fifth Symphony.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

The likes of Morton Feldman and Tōru Takemitsu emerge as influences of the recent compositions of Giguère, who was born in 1987. And if Giguère’s remark that his presented work Revealing (2017) concerns “revealing in a more personal, intimate sense”, the marks of those two mentioned composers were certainly there. Fragmented motifs repeatedly echoed in a colourful backdrop of a bell-rung texture, as the music shimmered from its angular inception. “Understatement and touching modesty” was the composer’s description of the piece, and indeed the work was less intended for theatrics than a scene of motions. A somewhat accessible piece, it had a feel of an exposition of a lengthier work, however; certainly the work betrayed the physicality of Feldman’s calm monumentalism in its abrupt conclusion after approximately 6 minutes.

If Elgar’s Cello Concerto was never intended to be a work of brutality despite its dark underlying impulses, Mälkki and soloist Daniel Müller-Schott rarely veered off from a reading of stately melancholy. The tuttis Mälkki conjured had enough sinew to announce the first theme of the first movement, yet the controlled vibrato of the strings implied something more covert. The ever-so-musical Müller-Schott had an undeniably tonal beauty and every percussive element was kept with lyrical allure. The aristocratic coolness residing in his husky vibratos reflected the overall picture of unhurried steadiness, yet the momentum was not slack as the concerto concluded in a noble spirit.

Perhaps in line with commemorating the 100th year of Finland’s independence, London has seen a major rise of performances of Sibelius’ works by major Finnish conductors, including those by Osmo Vänskä (LPO), Esa-Pekka Salonen (Philharmonia), and Sakari Oramo (BBCSO). Yet for the unquestionable credentials the LSO boasts as one of the greatest Sibelius orchestras outside of Finland (nurtured most notably by Sir Colin Davis), it is a curious occurrence that the orchestra has rarely landed a native Finn to conduct Sibelius’ symphonies. Mälkki’s performance of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony therefore comes as an expected surprise.

Unlike her fellow compatriots who like their Sibelius tight and transparent, Mälkki favoured a natural if not Romantic tone, as the strings were wide and warm with the timpani and brass driving the fluid textures of Sibelius’ score. Although the first movement was sublimely executed, the playing through the rest of the symphony was unpolished and brash at times (the brass especially), and the underlying pulse unclear. Thus the “swan theme” of the last movement lacked the desired oomph, and consequentially the slightly drawn out coda was isolated from its intended effects.

***11