Some concerts, like this London Philharmonic Orchestra offering, unfold a naturally compelling narrative challenging the listener to embark on a voyage of inner discovery. Would that we had more of them!

Tasmin Little © Benjamin Ealovega
Tasmin Little
© Benjamin Ealovega

Osmo Vänskä started his final traversal of his compatriot’s sound-world with the tone poem that Sibelius – notoriously reluctant to accept commissions – wrote for an American festival just before the outbreak of World War I. This had already undergone a metamorphosis from a three-movement suite, and from its original key of D flat major – technically challenging for all string players – to a more compact form and the more comfortable key of D major. Originally given the Finnish title Aallottaret (nymphs of the waves), it then developed a German identity (Rondeau der Wellen) before finally emerging as a direct tribute to Greek mythology. Oceanus was the great river that circled the earth and thus his manifold daughters became The Oceanides. The wave-like sequences for strings that ripple through the entire piece, suggesting an organic flow of the life-force itself, set the scene for what was to follow in the second half. Vänskä’s shaping hand was evident from the start, each contribution from wind, brass and percussion together with the two harps adding daubs of pastel colour to what is in effect a near cousin to Debussy’s La Mer. But only Sibelius was able to convey such a vista of raw elemental power emerging from icy depths in a fading northern light, the huge surge of sound at the climax despatched with great eloquence by the LPO strings and the thunderous timpani.

A few decades later, on the eve of yet another world war, William Walton received a commission from the greatest fiddler of his age, Jascha Heifetz. At the time he was wrestling with a self-imposed choice between becoming either a film composer or what he himself termed “a real composer”. In a villa high above Ravello on the Amalfi coast, and in a garden that was, as Susana Walton later recalled in her memoir, rich with the fragrance of myrtle, sage and thyme, Walton created a sound-world that spoke seductively both of the balmy night air and the languorous heat-haze of a Mediterranean landscape. Nothing could have provided a stronger contrast to the opening work or indeed the two symphonies in the second half. Tasmin Little didn’t just play the Walton violin concerto; she inhabited it. She took all the time in the world to voice the opening melody sognando, as indicated by the composer, and to explore with deeply expressive playing the rhapsodic qualities of a piece that eschews bravura for its own sake. This first movement is full of intimate, chamber-like music, with contributions from many individual instruments, all bathed in a mood of gentle tranquillity. Later, the contrasts between such delicacies and the vigorous interjections from the full orchestra were occasionally overstated by Vänskä.

The middle movement is quintessentially Walton: not only the marking – presto capriccioso alla napolitana – but also the characteristically spiky and unashamedly mischievous writing for solo violin and orchestra. While staying at his Italian villa Walton was bitten by a tarantula and he then decided to cast this movement in the form of a tarantella. Here, the brilliance of Little’s fast passage-work was thrown into sharp relief by the ethereal sounds she conjured up in the slower sections, ably supported by the high-lying LPO winds. In the finale the interplay between the moments of lyrical intensity from the soloist and the increased momentum unleashed by the syncopated wind and brass was especially effective.

According to a diary entry of his in 1912, Sibelius likened symphonic form to a river. From the start of his Sixth Symphony, where Vänskä neatly delineated the individual string textures, we were already breathing the clear, cool air of the north and looking into the mirror-like reflections of pure water. With flutes, then oboes, rising imperceptibly from the supporting string lines, Vänskä maintained a sense of onward flow, allowing the water-course to broaden and become mineral-enriched as the polyphony took hold. This was magisterial conducting, with a transparency and lucidity heightening the individual surges of seamless energy in the second movement, and a scherzo in which the wind choir was beautifully balanced against the march-like tread of the strings. In the finale, which has no need for grand statements of heroic intent, the ripples of excitement running through the string textures and crowned by the golden-toned horns and big-boned timpani, were palpable.

After the Sixth, the Seventh sounded like a further natural progression, the craggy contours of Sibelius’ landscape emerging with a stonemason’s precision. No comfort here either, with the fierce winds blowing in unexpectedly and eating the marrow out of you. This was mighty music, powerfully delivered by a conductor who always knew where the music was heading.