How easy it is to protest in the 21st century, with videos that quickly go viral, flashmobs organised via the internet at the drop of a hat, Twitter and all the rest. Now picture the state of affairs in the Grand Duchy of Finland at the fag-end of the 19th century, when Tsarist Russia decided to water down the modest degree of Finnish autonomy still further and impose massive restrictions on the freedom of the press. What could you do as a young artist if you were no longer prepared to bow to the forces of oppression?

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

Jean Sibelius knew what he could and had to do. He composed a new work and organised a concert in November 1899, using the revenue from ticket sales to bolster the benevolent fund for journalists who had been deprived of their livelihood. The piece in question stretches to forty minutes and delights in the original title of Musiikkia Sanomalehdistön päivien juhlanäytäntöön. Never heard of it? Nor had I, not even in the English translation of Press Celebrations Music, though the last of the six tableaux is better known as a precursor to the composer’s most popular piece, Finlandia.

Full marks to Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for introducing us in this astonishingly late UK première to the protean germs of musical ideas from which the later symphonies developed. There was already more than a hint of the composer’s signature statements in the chirpy woodwind melodies and confident brass flourishes of the prelude. His individuality was equally present in the deep, earthy sounds and rhetorical flourishes of the second tableau (“The Finns are Baptised”), with striking dissonances and elements of chromaticism reminiscent of his contemporary Scriabin, as well as in the muted horns that conjured up a desolate landscape early in the fourth tableau (“The Finns in the Thirty Years War”). More surprising perhaps was the Spanish flavour evident in the third tableau (“Scene from Duke John’s Court”), to which in his sensitive shaping of these cosmopolitan influences Oramo added an unmistakeably Viennese lilt. The grounding of Sibelius in the German tradition found particular expression in the Wagner-like rumblings from the lower strings that built to a ferocious operatic climax in the fourth tableau and also in the mighty Brucknerian blasts of heavy brass in the following tableau (“The Great Hostility”).

Throughout Oramo conducted with palpable passion and commitment and he was rewarded with incisive and assured playing from the BBCSO. However, it is a work in which the composer’s teeming ideas do not yet emerge fully-formed, and given that in the Barbican the sound can easily acquire a slightly strident edge there was occasionally an uncomfortable over-presence of the brass. Oramo has been winning plaudits from many quarters for the quality of the playing in his current Sibelius cycle and this concert underlined that achievement, most apparent to me in the depth and tonal richness of the strings. If I do have a slight niggle, it was the failure to achieve a hushed but full pianissimo in those passages that cry out for such contrasts, for instance in the lyrical intermezzo of the final tableau (“Finland Awakes”) as well as in the slow movement of the First Symphony that occupied the second half.

Before that we had the two short lyrical interludes for cello and reduced orchestra (no oboes or trumpets) that form the Two Serious Melodies, the first (“Cantique”) pastoral in mood and the second (“Devotion”) more ruminative, played with elegant poise by Guy Johnston.

I have heard more atmospheric beginnings to the E minor First Symphony, with the clarinet solo less pronounced than it was here, but there was no doubting when the second violins made their entry, buzzing with pent-up anticipation, that this was going to be a full-blooded account. Here was a young man’s heart beating vigorously and purposefully, the electron-charged waves of energy carrying right through to the scherzo, where the brass had plenty of bite, the strings flexed their collective muscles and the timpani commanded absolute attention. After the gloriously full unison string statement at the outset of the finale, Oramo pressed on with all the impetuosity of youth, taking the Allegro molto marking much closer to furioso. This was high-octane stuff, but it came very close to the heart of what the composer surely intended, expressed in his own words: “Romanticism is the innermost essence of music. What is Romantic is imperishable.”

Exactly one hundred years ago, in the midst of revolutionary turmoil in Russia, Finland gained its independence and reasserted its cultural identity. Looking at the impressive list of fine composers, instrumentalists, singers and conductors to come from a country of just over five million people, nobody need ever doubt its musical credentials. Long may its contribution to European culture continue.