A whole evening of Sibelius, and not a symphony in sight.  Apart from the Violin Concerto, the other two works on offer this evening will have been less familiar to many audience members.  Yet Vänskä proved that the Lemminkäinen Suite has as much depth and profundity as several of the symphonies, and deserves a more prominent place in Sibelius’ output that it perhaps gets, and he elicited commanding solo and ensemble performances from members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Osmo Vänskä © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä
© Greg Helgeson

Sibelius composed The Bard in 1913, and after revision the following year, he planned to make it the first movement of a suite, but it remained a single movement tone poem. His extensive use of the harp is perhaps an obviously bardic allusion, but it is also the sparse textures, and frequent ‘conversations’ between the harp and other instruments, notably the lower divided strings, that give this short piece a poetic, narrative feel. Some of the exposed entries from the violins felt a little tentative here, but once established, they produced a rich string sound, which Vänskä shaped towards the brief climax, over as soon as it starts. The piece subsides once again, and the harp returns us to a somewhat sombre repose. A well deserved mention here to Rachel Masters, Principal Harp, for her sensitive, poetic playing.

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto was no doubt the big draw for here, as well as the chance to hear the young French violinist, Alexandra Soumm. A former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, she is also a London Music Masters Award Holder, and the impressive evidence of her work with school children was in evidence earlier in the evening at a free pre-concert. She began by grabbing attention with an incredibly pianissimo opening, and Vänskä ensured the orchestra matched this, creating a wonderful opening to the piece. It became immediately clear that this would be a full-blooded, impassioned performance from Soumm, and she certainly did not hold back. The first movement is particularly fiendish, and on the whole, Soumm rose to its challenges. Aside from one slightly rocky moment at the start of the cadenza, this was music making of the highest standard, and Vänskä supported Soumm with perfectly judged dynamics from the orchestra throughout. Once again, Vänskä demonstrated his command in shaping the winding clarinet and oboe phrases at the opening of the second movement, and Soumm gave the lyrical, almost rhapsodical themes yet more passion.

The finale requires even more of the soloist technically than the first movement, and once again, Soumm was almost in full control. Just once or twice her energy and passion blurred a few details, but the killer octave and harmonic scales were securely nailed.  As if to prove this technical brilliance, she gave an equally fiery performance of the fourth movement. ‘Les Furies’, of Ysaÿe’s Sonata for solo violin, Op.27 no. 2

Following the interval, Vänskä was finally given centre stage, and he demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt his true eminence in conducting Sibelius.  In the four subtle, almost mystical movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite, he consistently highlighted every last detail, yet shaped this detail architecturally, so that Sibelius’ occasionally odd snippets of writing for just one or two instruments at a time made perfect sense as a whole. In the opening movement, “Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island”, Vänskä picks out the rumbling in the double basses, the wind and brass interjections, and the throbbing string accompaniment under the dancing wind, reminiscent of the hurdy-gurdy. The cor anglais (played with great tone and feeling by Sue Böhling) is the star of “The Swan of Tuonela”, and once again, Vänskä seamlessly shaped the conversation between cor anglais and solo cello that begins and ends the movement. The strings produced a suitably other worldly, glassy sul ponticello after the death of Lemminkäinen in “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela”, and then the great architecture was completed in “Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey”, with galloping horses and surging waves bringing everything to a dramatic climactic conclusion.  A fine end to an illuminating and enjoyable evening of Sibelius.