Continuing with Sibelius, the Sydney Symphony presented another Finnish epic in their latest concert, this time Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony. However, first of all we were treated to a Ravel masterpiece, his Piano Concerto in D for the left hand.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © B Ealovega
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© B Ealovega

This concerto was commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I. The work is a stunning display of pianistic virtuosity, requiring the pianist to play a solo part which sounds like it should be played with two hands. The work contains a variety of orchestral textures, colours and moods from the piece’s opening with low cellos, double basses and a contrabassoon to the rather jocular passages towards the end, rather reminiscent of the composer’s more famous work Boléro. Ravel also employs a variety of styles from the mysterious opening through some lyrical moments, to jazz-like passages.

The soloist for the work was French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Named Artist of the Year at the 2012 International Classical Music Awards, Bavouzet certainly has an impressive pedigree, which he certainly lived up to in the evening’s performance. The technical difficulty of the concerto cannot be understated. In fact, Wittgenstein, the work’s dedicatee, begged Ravel to make simplifications, believing the work to be too difficult. Ravel flatly refused. Bavouzet made light of the technical demands, and extracted an impressive amount of power from the instrument. His sound in the climactic sections had enough gravitas to match the full orchestra. Bavouzet managed to produce differing amounts of light and shade within his hand at the same time, often creating a lyrical melody with one half of his hand and a beautiful oscillating accompaniment with the other half. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy produced an equally virtuosic display, performing with sensitivity, nimbleness and bravura when required.

As if to prove that he can use his right hand too, Bavouzet provided us with a charming encore of Debussy’s Arabesque no. 1. Once again, this was sensitively played, although for me the opening tempo felt a little rushed and the music did not have the space it needed. Nevertheless, it was a delightful way to end the first half.

The second half and the vast majority of the concert was devoted to Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony. Like the Lemminkäinen Suite (reviewed with Sydney Symphony here), the work takes its inspiration from the Finnish epic the Kalevala. The work tells the story of the protagonist, Kullervo, who, after been orphaned and unloved as a child, later meets his long-lost sister. At first they do not recognise each other and the result is incest. By the end of the piece, both Kullervo and his sister have committed suicide. For this performance, Ashkenazy and the orchestra were joined by the men of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and two guest soloists, Helena Juntunen and Ville Rusanen. The work has been described as being distinctly Finnish and won favour from its conception for the national spirit seemingly present in the work. The symphony, although very early Sibelius, does contain many of the composer’s hallmarks, including his rather lush, often dark and heavy sound world. The work is long, and personally I found it difficult to maintain interest through some of the more expansive passages. There is an extensive passage for Kullervo’s sister in the third movement, through which I found it difficult to make head or tail of the music’s melodic argument. Nevertheless, both soloists were impressive, singing from memory, effectively acting out the dramas of the text with clear communication and a pure, resonant tone.

The orchestra made a good job of the music, engaging with it with precision and commitment. The horns had a particularly busy evening, as did the trumpets, who performed with great incisiveness. There was some good singing from the men of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, particularly in the third movement (the first movement they sing in). They sang with clear diction, which communicated the music effectively to the audience. However, in the last movement I found them slightly underwhelming, seemingly unable to compete with the rich, full sound of the orchestra. The climactic drama of the death of Kullervo at the work’s conclusion therefore was not as powerful as it might have been and the desired effect was lost. Nevertheless, a thoroughly interesting evening, and how great that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has been giving these lesser-known works of Sibelius an airing.