This central instalment in Osmo Vänskä’s Sibelius cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra fully endorsed his credentials as perhaps the world's greatest Sibelian. The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies were laid out to perfection, beautifully capturing the crucial ebb and flow of these works while highlighting innumerable fine details on the way.

Osmo Vänskä © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä
© Greg Helgeson

The Fourth, often seen as the most difficult of the set, was musically explained with utterly convincing clarity in Vänskä's hands. It retained, on the whole, a bleak sound world, but the tragedy and momentary optimism of the symphony were weighted with just the right reverence to give the performance an uncommon depth of character. Much of the success of both tonight's symphonies rested on the deliciously rich hum of the double bass section, memorably so at the opening of the Fourth. Here, in partnership with the cellos and bassoon, the desolate landscape of Koli was instantly made visible. The movement remained vastly expansive in outlook, though with admirable clarity of texture.

The uneasy tension raised by the second movement was developed to wonderful depths in the third, undoubtedly the emotional heart of the symphony and full of fine playing tonight. The horn section brought to mind the dirges of the slow movement of Bruckner 7 in their laments, while the heart-rending tragedy of the string playing was profoundly moving. After this the finale sparkled and danced, occasionally offering hopes of an optimistic resolution in the louder passages before closing in gloriously dark, if ambiguous, shadow.

Pairing the Fifth Symphony with the Fourth cast a very pleasing new light on this altogether more popular later work. The first movement in particular felt unusually unsettled in its central passages, most of all in Jonathan Davies' fine bassoon solo above oscillating violins, which seemed almost to lead on from the Fourth. It thus took something monumental to turn the music around. Vänskä's supreme grasp of the work's architecture was pivotal in this, with his particular ability to lean into and highlight those great Sibelean strophic cadences, treating them as huge intakes of breath, making for some wonderful moments. The joyous recapitulation in the first movement was one such, and to an even greater extent was the acceleration into the thrilling coda, where the music galloped breathlessly to a blindingly bright end.

After the agitation of the Andante, the finale zipped along briskly with clean textures leading into the famous swan hymn. It was difficult to believe the feathery pianissimo managed by the thirty violinists in the middle section, but the triumph of tonight's reading was the graceful, perfectly judged pull back of tempo into the return of the swan theme in the trumpets. It was an utterly magical moment, before the fullest, most joyous offering of the final minutes.

Continuing the intriguing pairing of the Sibelius symphonies with British string concertos, Raphael Wallfisch joined the orchestra for Elgar’s much loved Cello Concerto in E minor. This was a shrewd programming move, for the two symphonies and concerto complemented each other neatly, and the Sibelius seemed to make the angst-ridden emotional heart of the Elgar all the more significant. Vänskä and Wallfisch certainly sought to emphasise this in the crisp, almost terse semiquavers passages of the central movements. The first movement and later Adagio both found a silvery fluidity of sound which hung beautifully in the air, the LPO matching every bit of the soloist’s legato. An eloquent dialogue between cello and orchestra was maintained throughout, in no small part helped by Wallfisch addressing much of his playing to the first violins while still projecting a full, rich sound into the hall. The finale was forward-looking and light of touch, finding wonderful pianissimo control despite some discreet viola swapping due to a broken string at the front desk.

It is hard to imagine hearing Sibelius any better than tonight’s two symphonies, so numbers Six and Seven will be hotly anticipated this Friday.