Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra completed their Sibelius symphony cycle with the Second and Seventh Symphonies, and included two orchestral songs, one of which was a UK première. Finnish music in the 20th century was so dominated by Sibelius that it is valuable to discover in what other directions it was moving and what other influences were present.

Anu Komsi © Maarit Kyt
Anu Komsi
© Maarit Kyt

Aarrre Merikanto, himself the son of the popular composer Oskar Merikanto, studied in Leipzig and Moscow and was open to cosmopolitan influences: French Impressionism, Expressionist Modernism and Neo-Classicism. Self-critical he destroyed many works and others remain unplayed. His 1922 concert ariai Ekho tells the classical story of the nymph's unreturned love for Narcissus. The idiom is Impressionist, probing tonality to its extremes, with nebulous though transparent orchestral colours, with moments of ecstatic release that recall Scriabin. In the exposed soprano part Anu Komsi, securely brilliant and caressing, responded to line and text, fading away in autumnal sadness in the final moments.

Komsi also sang the Kalevala creation myth, Sibelius' Luonnatar. As in her memorable Kalevala-inspired 2017 Proms Chamber Recital she was totally idiomatic in this legendary folk world. With its vertiginous vocal leaps and broad intervals, Komsi's pure pitch-perfect soprano soared like the eldrich keening of a sea bird. The spareness and incantatory intensity were heightened by the BBCSO and Oramo.

Oramo chose to open the concert with Sibelius' final symphony, and its compressed 20-minute brevity encompassed the journey the composer had undertaken from his earlier nationalist beginnings, without ever forgetting them. Limitless in its horizons but focused in its vision, Oramu mastered the continual fluctuations of tempo, emotional tone and texture, through spasms of passionate intensity, the wind-chill of the scurrying strings and whirling of the woodwind, to transcendent splendour. The architectural span of the single movement was delineated with assurance, without premature false summits in the final Adagio, expertly placing the affirmative C major cadence as a key-stone securing a great arch.

Oramo's grasp of structure manifested itself in the concluding Sibelius Symphony no. 2 in D major. You can choose to hear this work, conceived in Italy, as a personal testament with a dark night of self-searching and belief at the heart of the Andante, or as a political statement of national identity. The skill of its symphonic development as the opening three-note motif evolved under Oramo's muscular beat proved the composer's mastery of the form. The balancing contrast of the brass, divided strings and bassoon in the second movement, led through a restless scherzo with its introspective oboe central section, evolved inexorably into the blazing, almost combative, final bars. This was not an easy Romantic apotheosis but a victory through struggle.

Throughout the programme, the BBCSO was on outstanding form; the strings were never overtly plush but had the right blend of astringency and depth. There were notable contributions from the woodwind soloists  and the bracing brass, particularly the trumpet, only let down at fortissimo by the unforgiving Barbican accoustic.

Having given us this Sibelius cycle, marked by some patriotic Finnish flag waving in the stalls, it would be rewarding if this orchestra and conductor, on current form, could let us discover more from Merikanto, his contempories and pupils.

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