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
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
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
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.