“My compositions must speak for themselves.” That’s a view which probably every composer would subscribe to. After all, how many artists want to be dependent on armies of interpreters and experts to reveal to the world what images, intentions and processes they actually had in mind while composing? In fact, when Sibelius was interviewed by his biographer Ernst Tanzberger he was being less than candid at this point. We know a lot about his Fifth Symphony precisely because he himself revealed so much about it. Yet our understanding only goes so far in explaining the enduring success of this work in E flat major. Is it the heroic key? The depiction of the natural world and the surges in elemental energy? The way in which the germ of a musical idea moves inexorably from the first bar to the last? Or is it the spiritual arrival, the sense of a long-delayed homecoming which provides such a satisfying resolution to the finale?

Osmo Vänskä © Joel Larson
Osmo Vänskä
© Joel Larson

Osmo Vänskä has spent a lifetime inhabiting this music. Perhaps for this reason whenever he comes to conduct it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (and his most recent performance with these forces was in October 2016), there is something new and vernal he finds to explore. If on that previous occasion I recall being swept away by the unfolding inevitability of his vision, this time there were myriad small details underpinning his multi-layered approach which wove an even richer tapestry than before. A few details: the trumpet picked out with great clarity in the early stages of the opening movement; the gurgling, deep-throated contributions from the woodwind (on magnificent form throughout); the inner glow which suffused the string textures in their warm-hearted embrace in the central Andante; the urgency coming from the violas in the rapid string writing that opens the finale and which leads to a sense of foreboding dispelled only by the entry of the trumpets, clarity ultimately irradiating all uncertainty. It takes a unique form of tensile strength to hold everything together as the music moves rapidly across so much terrain, sideways glances included, the proverbial elastic band being stretched and then slowly retracted. I have heard more explosive and more majestic readings but few that come so close to encompassing the Mahlerian idea of the whole wide world.

The comparative rarity in the evening’s programme sharing the second half with the symphony was the suite that Sibelius made in 1907 from his incidental music to a play of the same name, Belshazzar’s Feast. Like others too, Scandinavian composers were unable to resist the fascination emanating from the Orient (Nielsen followed a decade later with Aladdin), but although the opening movement with its four percussion players, deep-toned clarinets and arabesques traced by the strings provides more than a dash of exoticism, the other three movements are unmistakably Nordic in scenic character. The third of the four movements is a beautifully atmospheric “Nocturne”, with an extended flute solo of utter serenity, like a skylark rising above the glacial expanses conjured up by the strings.

The evening had kicked off with another infrequent concert visitor, which Vänskä has similarly absorbed into his DNA, having already recorded it with the LPO. This was Arnold Bax’s symphonic poem Tintagel, inspired by the composer’s visit in 1917 to the castle ruins overlooking the seething Atlantic Ocean below. Bax drew on the history and mythology associated with these imposing surroundings, chiefly the dramatic legends of King Arthur and King Mark (he inserts a quotation from Wagner’s Tristan). Vänskä was fully alive to the shifting moods of this piece which borders on Sibelian musical territory: the sudden dramatic swirls and eruptions followed by a return to pastoral tranquillity, an ebb and flow mirroring the movement of the tides. This stretch of water was almost never at rest, breaking powerfully with specks of white foam against the rocks and throwing up spectres from the deep like the introduction to some Gothic tale.

Repose from these stirring orchestral pieces came in the form of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, played by the young Canadian Jan Lisiecki in a thoughtful rather than barnstorming performance. His crystalline tone and elegance of phrasing make him an ideal interpreter of Chopin, and in the very measured and hushed beginning to the central Adagio the inward qualities displayed by the soloist turned this movement almost into a Chopin-like nocturne. Where in the opening movement control had been paramount, with no danger of any of the dancing raindrops ever turning to steam (even the thundering double octaves in the cadenza lacked all overt theatricality), here there was a fine drizzle of notes, the gentle precipitation at once cool and refreshing, matched by particularly poetic and poised horn playing. No hint of sentimentality inveigled itself into the finale either, with the dance rhythms kept consistently sharp and snappy.

****1