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London Town: A Sibelius Lover's Frozen Dream

A program of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and the Violin Concerto is the stuff dreams are made of. A Sibelius lover’s dream, that is… and certainly when the performers are the LSO (Sibelius being perhaps the only composer these all-rounders can take specialist-credits for), Leonidas Kavakos as the soloist, and conductor Osmo Vänskä.

The latter, in turn, is one of the very few replacements for the ailing Colin Davis who might be considered an upgrade with that program. It’s conjecture, but given the superb results it strikes one as a plausible one.

The Sixth Symphony was the most appreciated item on the bill: It’s a much less often performed work than Symphonies Two, Five, and Seven, but every bit as moving. Its deceptive four movement outline suggests something relatively orthodox where there is no symphonic orthodoxy at all. The work barely has beginnings and it has even fewer ends. Between movements, there is scarcely enough of a signal to audience to start their coughing-cascades. The work has an aim, but the target of it never seems to be revealed; its principal feature might be the strange, intriguing attractiveness in an inverse Marilyn Monroe way: Very beautiful, but not at all pretty. Vanska, a Sibelian semaphore of astounding exactitude, led the LSO in a performance of perfect clarity and of a seamless, organic fit. Or at least perfect compared to the dog’s breakfast most continental European orchestras make of Sibelius’ intertwining lines of thought. The brief third movement was juicy, the finale fleet and of irresistible wit and detail.

Kavakos on ionarts:

Kavakos Roars through Mendelssohn (April 17, 2009)

Ionarts at Large: Kavakos & Leonskaja in Brahms (October 15, 2008)

Ionarts-at-Large: Thielemann & Kavakos in (More) Brahms (July 01, 2008)

Too Few Witness Sibelius Greatness (March 09, 2007)

Dip Your Ears, No. 28 & Best of 2005 - Stravinsky/Bach (February 13th, 2005)

Kavakos, in his clever black-on-black polka dot smock, stepped up for the concerto. Perhaps it is the name-power of solo violinists that makes the Sibelius Concerto such a relative hit, even in otherwise Sibelius-deprived regions. Or it is the palpable feat that the soloist achieves during the performance. In any case it can’t be the music, which is great, but makes no more concessions to conventional ears than the Second or Fifth Symphonies. Kavakos certainly dazzled the audience with his unforgiving, severe mastery in the concerto and especially the incredibly idiomatic cadenzas. He did that so irresistibly, indeed, that half the audience applauded the astonishing first movement finale and no one stooped to shush them out of this instinctive show of appreciation. Splendid pianissimos, suspense, and not an ounce of self-indulgence held sway in the slow movement, and the LSO matched Kavakos’ dry and to-the-point performance perfectly. The third movement sounded like Kavakos and Vänskä revving up a tank-engine and then shooting large caliber elegance at the nearest targets… to stunning results. “There was nothing I would have had any different about this performance” remarked the accompanying picky musician friend. Agreed; the performance was as good as I’ve ever heard one, including the last time I heard the same performers in that concerto, 2007 with the NSO.

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Violin Concerto
(org. & rev. versions)
L.Kavakos / O.Vänskä / Lahti SO

In a perfect dramatic arc, the Seventh Symphony was programmed after intermission. First of all it really is impossible to properly play anything music after the end of that work (like encoring a Chopin Étude after opus 111), secondly its twenty-minute brevity makes the block after intermission snappy and short, and thirdly that brief focus heightens our appreciation of how much greatness per note this symphony contains. It’s really as though all the great romantic symphonist and Richard Wagner had come up with one massive symphony and then entrusted the execution to Anton Webern.

The best prescription for listening to the Seventh is: close your eyes and cry about the loss of the Eighth. Everyone played along beautifully: brass especially, with extra merit points for trombones and horns; a few demerits for the hissy flutes and airy clarinets, though even those worked their own charm in the Sibelian landscape. A fine cap to a rare gem of a concert.

See also ionart's Survey of Sibelius Cycles