Reino Unido

Unbinding Sibelius (I)

Andrew Maisel
viernes, 23 de noviembre de 2007
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London, jueves, 1 de noviembre de 2007. Barbican Hall. Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. Jean Sibelius, Lemminkainen's Return; Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wing on Wing. Jean Sibelius, Symphony nº 2 (November 1st). Jean Sibelius Symphony nº 4. Steven Stucky, Radical Light. Jean Sibelius, Symphony nº 7 (November 2nd).
0,0001993 It may not raise many eyebrows for a leading conductor approaching his 50th birthday never to have undertaken a complete Sibelius symphony cycle. But for such a person to be the leading Finnish conductor of his generation is rather astonishing. Esa Pekka Salonen is the case in point. As a young man he wanted to get as far away as he could from Sibelius. So unbearably overwhelming seems to have been the influence of the composer in the culture of his homeland that he went as far away as Italy to escape from it. "I wanted to get out of Finland, as far as I could, to a different culture where Sibelius would not permeate every molecule of the musical oxygen I breathed" confesses Salonen in the written introduction to 'Sibelius Unbound!', the cycle which proclaims the late conversion of Salonen to the composer he so tried to avoid. After performing the cycle in Los Angeles early this year, he has just done it again in four concerts at the London Barbican.

Concert number one gave us as curtain raiser to the whole event, Lemminkainen's return from the Four Legends. Salonen set a searing pace and although he didn't reach the dizzying speed of Toscanini or Beecham this was still a performance of tension and vitality with some particularly fine string playing.

Salonen's own Wing on Wing, written in 2004 as a homage to the new Walt Disney concert hall in Los Angeles and its designer Frank O. Gehry completed the programme. Difficult to work out where this piece fitted in with the rest of the Sibelius programme. Salonen large-scale sprawling work doesn't bring anything particularly new to the party with clear influences from Debussy to Bernstein, with samples of Gehry thrown in to good effect! Nevertheless there were some gorgeous sonorities conjured up by the LA Philharmonic showing off its virtuosity to fine effect.

By contrast, the performance of Sibelius´ most popular early work, the 2nd Symphony, was somewhat of a disappointment. From the opening hesitancy of the 'Allegretto', this was an interpretation high on refinement, clarity and orchestral lucidity, but lacking the last ounce of passion and electricity so essential in any good Sibelius. Certainly, there were many fine things to admire, the expressive woodwind playing (a highlight throughout the series), the superb orchestral balance and Salonen's sense of architectural coherence in shaping every phrase. Particularly outstanding was the beautiful handling of the transition from the third movement 'Scherzo' to the 'Finale'. A blazing brass section brought the symphony to an exciting conclusion. However, there was a lack of tension throughout which made the performance ultimately somewhat uninvolving and grounded. An unusually sombre and slow Valse Triste as the encore made for an unsatisfying conclusion.

A mere eight years separates the Second and Fourth symphonies, but they sound as if separated by decades. The Third had already signposted the departure from the Russian and Teutonic influences of the first two symphonies for a far leaner, sparser and individual sound. The Fourth, which opened the second concert, pushes the envelope even further.

Salonen seems far more at ease with this Sibelius. And he takes it deadly seriously. A woman arriving late to her seat received the frostiest of stares from the conductor as he waited to begin the work. A cacophony of coughs greeting the end of the second movement led to a five-minute pause before Salonen was satisfied both he and the audience were ready to continue.

From the opening bars which Sibelius instructed to be played "Hard, like Destiny", the conductor set out his intent in no uncertain fashion. Austere it may have been , but Salonen never lost sight of the tenderness and depth of feeling which walks hand in hand with the deathly overtones of this marvellous work. The third movement, the emotional core of this work was deeply moving, as it should be, the strings singing out passionately at its climax. The conductor's expression at the end suggested complete exhaustion - an indication of how much this symphony means to him.

The performance of the7th Symphony was possibly finer. Sibelius's final symphonic uttering is a unique and original work with its four movements telescoped into one. From the opening radiant string playing in the opening staggered ascent, this was an interpretation performance of the utmost clarity and detail. Beautifully paced throughout the four seamless movements and exquisitely phrased, every detail laid bare. Yet this was in no way a clinical performance. Salonen brought out the compassion and humanity of this work and the tension generated in the finale led to an exhilarating and moving conclusion to the final resting home of C major.

In between we had the European premiere of Stephen Stucky's Radical Light, specially composed for "Sibelius Unbound" festival and like the 7th symphony it consists of a single movement embracing different tempi and musical 'characters' as Stucky describes it. It's a beautiful piece, similar in length and architecture to the Seventh with obvious Sibelian influences featuring some delicious woodwind writing.

Two concerts, two different nights and two very different performances. The first night was indifferent; both conductor and orchestra were off form. Much of the playing was uninspired and at times decidedly bland, especially the strings which lacked colour and character. The second night could not have been more different; an orchestra and conductor inside the music and working as one. Will the real LA Philharmonic please stand up.
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