Revered Finnish conductor Okko Kamu joined the Hallé for a perfectly proportioned account of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony alongside powerful Grieg and Strauss in the orchestra’s Opus One series.
Kamu’s style, of minimal fussiness and generally leaning towards steady tempi and thick textures, was far more suited to the Sibelius symphony than the first half works. His reading of Strauss’ Don Juan, a tone poem typically requiring a torrent of youthful energy, consistently emphasised Juan’s amorous qualities over his athletic escapades. Though the opening flourish felt a touch sluggish on the part of both orchestra and conductor, and the music never really bristled with life, the slower central passages and later horn themes fared rather better, finding a rich expansiveness and warmth of sound. The woodwind principals gave characterful and engaging solos, Hugh McKenna’s oboe solo especially well played, before a grand, rather than breathlessly triumphant, climax.
Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk was a dynamic presence on stage, both musically and physically, for Grieg’s ever-popular concerto by Grieg. He mustered enormous power from the piano’s lower register in the cadenzas, often bouncing on his stool as if on springs, but elsewhere played with a pleasing lightness of touch and sensitivity to the orchestra. Even with a slightly reduced string section, Okko Kamu’s conducting tended towards thick textures and broad tempi. This highlighted the darker moments of the first movement, especially with his careful shaping of long string lines.
The slow movement, widely spaced and airily dreamy, found attractive moments of light in its central passages, where Gavrylyuk produced resolute optimism amid the duskier hues of the orchestral accompaniment and elegantly handled horn solos. The brooding angst continued into the finale, where the minimally sentimental first appearance of the flute theme, though attractively played, did little to dispel the mood of Gavrylyuk’s thunderous solos. It was not until the last moments that Kamu indulged a broadening of tempo and valedictory climax of the concerto.
The opportunity to hear Kamu, a revered Sibelean, conduct his compatriot’s Fifth Symphony must have been a significant draw for many of the large audience. Here, at last, his expansive style came into its own, capturing every ebb and flow of the music and placing it neatly within the context of the work as a whole. This was a perfectly proportioned and immensely satisfying performance which never lost sight of the symphony’s structural arc.
For all the focus on allowing the music’s natural shape to breathe, there was no shortage of character or detail, noticeably so in the unhurried and engaging woodwind dialogues in the early minutes of the symphony, and later in the first movement across stage between trumpet, horn and woodwinds. Kamu pushed the current along, driving it to a blazingly climactic account of the movement’s rising four-note theme. The Andante was relatively forward looking, more an intermezzo than slow movement, though the troubled rumblings near its end were neatly highlighted.
The finale was similarly brisk, dawning with bristling, frenetic strings (who mustered remarkably good control even at tiny dynamics) and blossoming into a wonderfully fresh, airy account of the famous ‘swan hymn’. Kamu’s swans were graceful and light of wing in the horn figures which accompany the attractively shaped woodwind and cello theme. Even at the symphony’s climax there was only a subtle drawing back of tempo before the ecstatic final realisation of the swan theme. This was an original and absolutely coherent performance.
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