Sibelius Festival: No 5 and Violin Concerto

The Sibelius Festival: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Vesa-Matti Leppännen (violin)

Sibelius: Finlandia, Violin Concerto, Symphony No 5.

Michael Fowler Centre, Wednesday 16 September

When the 2009 NZSO season was announced I sensed certain misgivings in some people who wondered if a Sibelius festival was really such a good theme, and if it would fly.

Yes, we had a talented young Finnish conductor whose reputation, we gathered, was growing fast overseas; and a Finnish concertmaster who’d make a pretty authentic fist of the violin concerto. But typically in New Zealand, I continued, and continue, to hear certain carefully phrased reservations. It seems not to be possible that another orchestra, in a country like New Zealand might have found a young conductor who was doing himself and his orchestra a power of good; like a Simon Rattle making the Birmingham orchestra equal to the best in Britain, and a Maris Janssons raising the Oslo Philharmonic to international rank, or perhaps Andris Nelsons who’s now in charge of Birmingham (notice: two Latvians? A smaller country than New Zealand). Can’t happen here?

A couple of Naxos CDs of Sibelius have won high praise, but for many people, that’s not important; Naxos isn’t Deutsche Grammophon is it?

Personally, I’m much more sanguine.

In the first concert, I sat middle stalls, not where I sit very often, and it was wonderful. Finlandia began, with its portentous rhetoric flowing from the sonorous body of strings, the weight supported magnificently by the basses and cellos. They breathed deeply, overflowing with Finnish national passion, turning to a quasi-religious hymn that sustained this most emotional of national musical poems.

It was the obvious way to start the festival and certainly, on that first evening, it seemed to me a great idea. (Which is not quite the same as being a commercial success).

Though I heard the expected comments about the soloist in the violin concerto, egos noting that there were weaknesses and asking why we could not get a big name to play the piece. But this was a Finnish show, Inkinen and Leppännen are friends and the latter is not only an excellent orchestral concertmaster, but a considerable soloist.

In fact Leppännen’s performance was, in most ways, extremely fine, and whether it was just sentiment on my part, I sensed real empathy between violinist, conductor and orchestra. The opening passages were sheer magic from both orchestra and soloist, conjuring a dim Arctic light through tremolo strings. His extremely refined pianissimos were sheer magic and there was no remaining calm during the well-planned climaxes in the first movement.

The orchestra’s double bass section has, perhaps through the leadership of Hiroshi Ikematsu, become a force to reckon with, creating a dense luxurious sound that can never be excessive. This concerto can use a great deal of that quality, particularly in the second movement, and it was deeply satisfying. There were, I suppose, signs of tiredness, slight flaws in scales and arpeggios in the last movement, but far more important was the feeling of complete artistic unity that drove the work with such emotional power.

The Fifth Symphony has become the most popular. Compared with the hushed, wintery opening of the Concerto and the deeply meditative hymn in Finlandia, the Fifth is summer time. This performance was so carefully prepared, with an ear to the most careful balances, yet suggesting happiness, though not perhaps, an unbridled joyousness.

Bassoons make themselves felt here as much as heard, and their passages, over shimmering strings, were memorable. The second movement curiously betrays its origins in the mid-century symphonists, but Sibelius takes command with characteristic wind symphonies that the orchestra played with all their usual refinement and warmth.

If I had any disappointment, perhaps it was with the handling of the emergence of the thrilling ostinati that drives their way through most of the last movement. Inkinnen seemed to have judged the rate of acceleration and of the crescendo correctly enough but, as with the performance of No 2 on Saturday, that longed-for sense of impending climax didn’t take hold of me early enough. Perhaps it’s age.

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