Sibelius was never one to stick to a formula. While many composers have achieved great success writing pieces that followed a set format – Bruckner’s symphonies and Vivaldi’s concertos spring to mind – Sibelius simply did not subscribe to this view. As a symphonist, he was inventive and unorthodox, but restless too. So, with some intelligent programming, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra continued their impressive Sibelius symphony cycle pairing two symphonies that confused audiences when they were first performed, and introduced a significant new work by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, with Lisa Batiashvili giving its UK première.

Lisa Batiashvili © Amy Hart | Deutsche Grammophon
Lisa Batiashvili
© Amy Hart | Deutsche Grammophon

First let me cut to the chase: these were hands down standout performances. Sometimes everything just clicks, and in these three quite different but equally rewarding pieces, Oramo and the BBCSO excelled and produced stunning results. 

Sibelius’ Symphony no. 4 in A minor, written in 1911, is a masterpiece of modernism. But it is a thorny affair, and it can still leave audiences with that quizzical sensation. Oramo gave short shrift to any feeling of complacency, delving deep into the composer’s introspective psyche and weaving through the dark and brooding narrative with determination and purpose. The unsettling tritone pervades this work, and Oramo made sure that all the dissonances were eked out to maximum effect. A true sense of foreboding was captured, with an even mix of pained anguish and melancholy, and the orchestra was on tip-top form, with particularly fine control in the accented episodes and in the very hushed passages. The emotional centre of the work, the third movement, was expertly done, Oramo carefully teasing out the lone fragments at the beginning, hinting at some larger theme to come, and patiently threaded through the fabric before building up to its passionate and thought-provoking climax.

The concise purity and “cold spring water” of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 6, sadly one of the least performed of his symphonies, was given an equally cultured account. Harmonically structured around the Dorian mode, critics have referred to the “pure idyll” of this symphony, and Oramo crafted every phrase with care. The BBCSO exuded grace and refinement in the first two movements, with feathery textures and undertones of intensity, and there was real drive and precision in the third movement, which was sharp, bold and lively. Oramo gave warmth and pulse in the finale, creating a glistening sheen and a beautiful fading away at the close.

The magic touch was splitting the two Sibelius symphonies with Anders Hillborg’s Violin Concerto no. 2. First performed in October 2016 by Sakari Oramo and Lisa Batiashvili, its dedicatee, there have now been ten performances already, including this UK première, which shows the increasing popularity of this enterprising and creative composer. Hillborg is one of Sweden’s foremost composers, writing prolifically in a wide variety of genres, and works like his breakthrough Mouyayoum, Eleven Gates, King Tide, Celestial Mechanics and Exquisite Corpse (what titles!) demonstrate his varied musical language.

Following the opening bird-like wisps and glissandi and the echoing of the chattering wind instruments, there began a journey through different timbres and tapestries, from slow shifting glacial orchestral textures, hypnotic one moment, percussive and rhythmic Middle-Eastern drive the next, to melting microtonal passages. Batiashvili was completely in the zone – masterful, committed, dream-like and sometimes nightmarish with fiery aggression, bow flailing over strings and fingers nimble and precise. Her performance was captivating and totally absorbing, full of tension, reflection and impassioned drama. The encore was also a fitting postscript to this extraordinary piece - Hillborg’s arrangement for violin and strings of Bach’s organ Chorale Prelude, “Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ”.

With exceptional playing and inspired craftsmanship, there seemed to be something rather special in these particular performances of Nordic ice and fire.

*****