Jean Sibelius described his craggy Sixth Symphony as reminding him of “the scent of the first snow”, so it made for apt viewing during the current cold snap in London, swiftly followed by his more compact Seventh. There’s even been a dusting of snow in Paris this week, perfect meteorological conditions to make Esa-Pekka Salonen feel right at home for this livestream with the Orchestre de Paris.

Esa-Pekka Salonen rehearses in the Philharmonie de Paris
© Mathias Benguigui | Pasco and Co

If you’re a Finnish conductor, Sibelius tends to come with the territory, yet Salonen doesn’t conduct the symphonies half as much as many of his compatriots. Factor in that the Orchestre de Paris doesn’t have a long pedigree in Sibelius – Paavo Järvi only performed the cycle over a number of years during his tenure as music director – and we headed into an intriguing encounter. 

Sibelius was always prepared to follow his own path, ignoring the direction that modernist central European composers were taking. Instead of their “elaborate cocktails”, he offered his Sixth as “a drink of pure water”. Salonen poured it over a tumbler of ice in a reading, at a glacial 32 minutes, slower than any I’ve heard (so slow that the programmed Death of Mélisande concert opener had been jettisoned). In some ways, Salonen’s approach emphasised the score’s austerity. A lot of Sibelius’ orchestration is sparse – shards of woodwind, harp splinters – and it was delivered with pinpoint precision.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Mathias Benguigui | Pasco and Co

Rarely displaying a flicker of emotion, Salonen conducted with a cool, fluid beat, although sadly the Philharmonie’s rehearsal photos – which seemed to show him using his baton as a wand to conjure up a patronus – raised false expectations. But there was some sort of wizardry in that, despite Salonen’s slow tempi, the strong rhythmic pulse meant the music never felt unduly slow. The brakes were slammed on hard for the poco rallentando midway through the finale, although the ravvivando quickening of the pace directly afterwards was persuasive, the Paris strings playing with great lightness of touch. The rich polyphony of the closing pages was beautifully rendered, fading mysteriously into silence. 

Some conductors have favoured a segue from the Sixth’s hushed conclusion straight into the Seventh, but Salonen allowed the online audience a moment’s pause to collect our thoughts. The Seventh was Sibelius’ final, and most tightly argued symphony, condensing the form into a single movement of little over 20 minutes. It’s a remarkable work, especially in the way it ebbs and flows, the tempos constantly shifting, whilst being rooted in the key of C (major and minor). After his spacious Sixth, Salonen delivered a more urgent performance here, navigating those many tempo changes with skill, melding its many episodes into a gripping entity.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Orchestre de Paris
© Mathias Benguigui | Pasco and Co

Woodwinds chattered garrulously and the great trombone motif that appears three times in the work was nobly delivered; the video director eventually located the section during its first iteration, and by the third we even had a close-up of the principal. Hat-tip to the lighting director though; if you film a lockdown concert heavily spotlit in otherwise near darkness, you don’t see rows of empty seats behind the conductor.  

Simon Rattle once remarked that, “there’s no other piece that ends in C major where you feel it’s the end of the world.” Here, Salonen shaped that closing Affetuoso section, with its brief hint of the Valse triste on the score’s final page, most movingly. Unruffled, he held the pose – baton aloft – long after the music ceased, waiting for the Philharmonie to fade to black. He’s still the coolest Finn on the block. 

This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonie de Paris' video stream