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S & H Prom Review

PROM 40: Carl Nielsen, Kalevi Aho, Jean Sibelius; Christian Lindberg (trombone), Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 18th August, 2003 (AR)


This imaginatively planned programme conducted by Osmo Vänskä with the Finnish Lahti Symphony Orchestra opened with a consciously subdued account of Carl Nielsen’s Overture 'Helios' (the sun God in Greek mythology), the opening strings taking on a very hushed murmuring quality. Nielsen stated that the overture was inspired by watching the sun rise over the Aegean Sea (though he confessed later that it was not ‘programme music’). Throughout, the conductor maintained a sustained sense of reserve and distance, as if we were experiencing the sun through a haze of fog, and his orchestra produced some very warm, mellow and refined playing.

This Prom was also the London premiere of Kalevi Aho’s Symphony Number Nine for trombone and orchestra (1993-4). Though written for one of the world’s great trombonist virtuosi, Christian Lindberg, this work is not merely a trombone concerto masquerading as a symphony. Lindberg eschewed the role of star soloist, sensitively integrating with the orchestra as a conflicting voice amongst many. Sporting a frilly gigolo ‘seventies shirt and red silken tight trousers, he played both trombone and sackbut in the manner of a free-style jazz musician with great panache and precision.

In the post-modernist manner of Alfred Schnittke, Aho juxtaposes historically distinct styles from the fruitiest, frivolous baroque dances (played by the harpsichord and strings) conflicting with modernist Mahlerian angst (brass and timpani), for example in the closing of the Andante – Vivace with its bizarre juxtaposition of humour from the harpsichord and horror from the timpani and base drum which gave a sensation of voluptuous violence.

The symphony reveals, through its juxtaposition of the old and new, the collapsing of time itself through the conflict of musical styles: the music of the past suddenly meets the music of the present which itself suddenly becomes the music of the past.

For Aho both the past and present become conflicting, floating fictions which are erased by time but saved by memory.

This is further demonstrated in the Adagio central movement, part of which Aho said represents ‘the end of time or completion of history’. As the memory of the end of time, Aho’s score is not ‘contemporary’ but timeless.

The concluding Presto was rivettingly intense with the concluding sounds spilling out of the orchestra complemented by Lindberg’s vocal sounds (where he is required to vocalise into his instrument, projecting grunting sounds during his trombone cadenza.) Again the tinkling harpsichord and nailing timpani brought this work to a timeless end. The shattering intensity of this inspired performance made me feel numbed and exhausted and the audience appeared gripped and intoxicated throughout. The composer was rightly given a very warm reception, as also were the soloist and conductor.

This evening was also the UK premiere of Sibelius’s Aallottaret (The Oceanides, Yale version 1914) which Vänskä discovered last year. Some of the music in this earlier score is known although the themes appear in a different order, and its home key is D flat rather than D major of the final version. Vänskä brought out the chamber-like textures allowing us to hear every member of the orchestra which also included two timpanists who set the atmosphere of this sparkling score throughout. Notably superb was the chilling, pointed woodwind playing.

Sibelius’ Third Symphony in C major opened with a grainy and rugged cello and viola sound which set the mood for Vänskä’s gutsy yet melancholic reading of this under-played and underrated score. The Andantino was the most moving account I have heard of this symphony: Vänskä conducted it without a baton and gracefully moulded the orchestra, coaxing out buoyant rhythms from the expressively sensitive strings.

In the Presto, Vänskä had a total grasp of the score’s structure and very wide dynamic range, and created a great sense of nervous tension and a feeling of unfolding organic growth. The closing passages were perfectly measured and slowly built to create a glowing sense of awe from the radiant brass: a mesmerising performance.

While the Royal Albert Hall was sadly only one third full, the appreciative Promenaders gave the conductor and orchestra a very warm reception and were rewarded with two encores. Sibelius’ Valse Triste was given a reading worthy of Sergiu Celibidache with its wide dynamic range, measured tempi and eloquent dance rhythms.

In this Prom Osmo Vänskä proved himself to be a superb Sibelian and a great exponent of Aho’s miraculous music. A truly unforgettable evening of inspired music making.

Alex Russell






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