It was illuminating to hear two such different single span works bookending this concert of all Sibelius works, given by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under their Chief Conductor, John Storgårds. The first was Sibelius’ early En Saga (A fairytale) and the final work was his late masterpiece, his Symphony no 7. Both last around twenty minutes but that is mostly all they have in common.

Christel Lee © Dorothee Falke
Christel Lee
© Dorothee Falke

En Saga was the fruit of a suggestion by Finnish conductor, Robert Kajanus, who suggested Sibelius should follow up his successful choral work Kullervo with a shorter and purely orchestral work. While Kullervo was a collection of symphonic poems based on a Finnish national epic, En Saga seems largely devoid of programmatic content. Though Sibelius did initially suggest its general atmosphere was inspired by the Edda, a collection of poems based on Norse mythology, he was later more ambivalent about literary comparisons. 

The piece began as a feast for the eyes with the violinists of the Helsinki orchestra demonstratively rocking their bows, crossing their strings in deft spread chords as one. This device returned more than once in the concert, both in the solo part of the Violin Concerto and the opening of the Karelia Suite. Many moments like this in the piece reminded me just how modern Sibelius’ sound world can seem, even now. 

The orchestra played with remarkable ensemble and precision but also with warmth where this was required. I have rarely heard the timpani flourish that opens the Seventh Symphony played with such clarity, for instance, and this important part was unusually clear throughout. Also, the crystalline sound of the Helsinki strings became much warmer as the violas and cellos gradually and tenderly laid the foundations for the first of the three great trombone solos that permeate the symphony at such key moments in the work. These solos were played with an edge that ensured they sang out above the orchestra without being too brash. The final return of this solo was truly hair-raising.

Storgårds’ conception of the symphony was spacious and tempi felt just right, such that phrases seemed to ebb and flow in and out of existence quite seamlessly. There was a feeling of gravitas even in the section that might be considered to be the ‘scherzo’ if following symphonic convention, which of course this symphony does not. The shock of the supposed tonic final chord of C major only emphasizes this point and Storgårds ensured this chord was both crystal clear and short-lived. 

An insert in the programme was necessary as the identity of the winner of the 2015 International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition was not known at the time it went to press. This prestigious competition is held every five years in Helsinki. Famous past winners include Viktoria Mullova and Leonidas Kavakos. The final round mandates a performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and so this year’s American winner, Christel Lee, had the benefit of a practice run of the concerto she brought to Birmingham, albeit under rather different circumstances.

Lee was certainly in command of the formidable technical challenges this work presents. Only in the third movement did her technique falter ever so slightly in the high-wire passagework of the opening section. I wondered if the brisk tempo in this movement, which had been launched in excitable style with clattering timpani, was to her liking. The ensemble throughout was impeccable and the quartet of Helsinki horns, which provides more or less constant accompaniment to the soloist in the slow movement, was excellent. Lee visibly communicated with them and other important protagonists throughout the concerto. The opening movement was taut, focused and exciting though I feel that it, like many modern performances, was lacking a sense of space and wonder. Nevertheless, Lee is a performer to watch in the future.

The second half of the programme opened with the Karelia Suite. It was a fun romp, if a little hard driven by Storgårds at times. The Helsinki Philharmonic played the music of their compatriot to the manner born, as might be expected, but I couldn’t help but feel their performances didn’t yield any fresh insights into his still enigmatic works in this, his 150th anniversary year.