Jean Sibelius is purported to have written part of his Symphony no. 5 after having witnessed a large flock of swans take flight from his home in rural Finland. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, the “swan theme” has become part of the Western musical subconscious, with quotations showing up in jazz and pop music for much of the last century. In this performance, Cornelius Meister, conducting the ORF RSO, made individual moments in this work sing, without really giving a good sense of its overall shape.

Cornelius Meister © Rosa Frank
Cornelius Meister
© Rosa Frank

Edvard Grieg’s music was heavily influenced by Norwegian folk songs, which are characteristically built on short melodies, which are repeated but usually not developed at any length. Grieg himself mourned in his life at his lack of panache in writing longer musical forms, which may or may not have been connected to his intuitive use of the this folk material. The Peer Gynt Suite no. 2 is no exception – in it, one can hear beautiful melodic and rhythmic ideas, repeated and spliced beside each other. However, when performed well, this suite has a feeling of movement through the entire work, with each distinctive, repeated section forming part of a coherent whole. In Meister’s interpretation in this concert, the piece lacked some of this flow. For instance, the tempo changes in the first movement, “Ingrid’s Lament”, were greatly exaggerated. This allowed the orchestra to revel in the long, beautifully resonant chords, but the movement dragged. The “Arabian Dance” was stately, but lacked the fire that this piece can hold. The held note in the violins at the beginning of the “ahs” in “Solveig’s Song” was held interminably long – though given a lovely shape – which rather removed its purpose as a note meant to lead into the melody which follows. Meister elicited maximum resonance from each of the individual parts of the suite, but the movement and lightness of this work turned heavy, creating instead a collage of interesting moments.

This collage effect somehow made some sense in the context of the next piece. Credo (1968) was the last piece Arvo Pärt wrote during his so-called collage period. This piece was banned by the Soviet Union, which ruled his native Estonia at the time. This piece is all musical contrasts, embodying the sound of the crisis Pärt was experiencing in his artistic quest. Ranging from an extended quotation of the Bach Prelude in C, to several minutes of atonal yelling from both the choir and the orchestra, this piece was performed with great gusto by all involved. The Singverein did an excellent job of capturing the contrast of the tender, spiritual moments with the onslaughts of rage. Meister, on the piano, kept the large group moving and engaged.

The third work on the program, Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, was also written during something of a turning point in this composer’s career. The piece was commissioned for Sibelius’ 50th birthday in 1915, a celebration that was a national holiday in Finland. While the première was well received, Sibelius was unsatisfied with the piece, and went on to revise it twice over the next four years, delayed by health problems and the turmoil of the First World War. The multiple revisions of this piece may reflect Sibelius’ searching to re-establish his voice in a compositional landscape that was turning away from Romanticism. In the final revision, there remains intellectually fascinating structural and formal intrigue, while still allowing for the robust, cathartic, Romantic sound for which Sibelius is best known. In this performance, Meister gave a restrained interpretation. After the contrasts he elicited in the first two works on the program, the conductor stayed largely out of the way in this piece, allowing the orchestra to shine.

The ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra is remarkable for its relaxed onstage attitude, casually dressed in suits and ties and featuring a diverse and young membership. Contrasted with the other, more elitist and formally-attired professional orchestras in the city, this is a welcome change, and one that is a joy to hear. This orchestra plays with a flow and cohesiveness which suited the Sibelius well. Meister stood still and allowed the orchestra to navigate the tempo changes in the first movement on its own, which worked rather well. His intervention near the end of the movement, holding back the brass from growing too overwrought at the climax, made sense given their soaring in the third movement. The second movement was again stately and restrained. However, it would have been lovely to hear a bit more expression from the third movement. The swan theme didn’t quite take flight, as Meister restrained the horns in favour of highlighting the winds. As with the performance of the Grieg, one got a sense of lovely individual moments in this piece, but lacked the awareness of overarching form and structure.

Given the excellent performers and beautiful repertoire, this was a satisfying concert, in spite of the occasional lack of musical shape.