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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 42,  Sibelius:  Soloists / Dominante choir / Lahti Symphony Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London. 15.8.2007 (ED)


Sibelius: The Tempest – complete incidental music

Songs with orchestra:
Höstkväll, Op. 38 No. 1 sol. Juntunen
Hertig Magnus Op. 57 No. 6  sol. Juntunen
Arioso, Op. 3 sol. Juntunen
Demanten på marssnön, Op. 36 No. 6  sol. Paasikivi
Den första kyssen, Op. 37 No. 1  sol. Paasikivi
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte, Op. 37 No. 5  sol. Paasikivi
Autrefois (Scène pastorale), Op. 96b  sol. Juntunen & Paasikivi

Symphony No. 7 in C major

Helena Juntunen soprano
Lilli Paasikivi mezzo-soprano
Juha Hostikka tenor
Petri Lehto tenor
Ville Rusanen baritone

Some ‘celebratory’ concerts fall well short of the mark in terms of atmosphere, but not this one. Jean Sibelius could hardly have asked for more to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death. There was a very elemental feeling to the concert, with the weather playing a large part in proceedings. Rain tapped gently on the roof to leave a contribution from this year’s British summer (I use the word in its loosest sense!) on the “isle full of noises, rich and strange” that was the Royal Albert Hall. Best known as a composer of sagas than incidental music to stage plays, Sibelius nonetheless approached The Tempest with dedication and imagination, willingly collaborating with the production team of a
Copenhagen staging in 1926. For all his experience and imagination though,  the score’s all but total neglect can perhaps be best explained by two factors: difficulties in working with the play in a staged performance and some surprising omissions in the musical material.

As incidental music goes, Sibelius treads close to overstepping the mark of impinging upon the drama,  with his inclusion of sung items then, conversely, he steers clear of including material one would think central to such a score. Nowhere is Prospero explicitly mentioned or portrayed, though he is hinted at. What there is conveys a mass of other portraits, colourful scenes and incidental asides that have the ability to just about hold their own as music if one knows the play's plot well enough to make the mental connections. Osmo Vänskä’s spirited direction seemed entirely appropriate for the occasion though, neatly drawing playing of sensitivity from his
Lahti orchestra. If the music did not seem fully in their fingers – the violins almost came unstuck once or twice as Sibelius called for contrasting lines with other instrumental sections - their performance lacked little in commitment and freshness. Such qualities have helped the orchestra make their mark under Vänskä’s baton in recent years. The Dominante choir contributed their parts atmospherically, and even though the solo parts favoured Lilli Paasikivi’s Ariel, all created a distinct timbre that found its place effortlessly within The Tempest’s self-contained world.

A feeling of organic growth is also central to Sibelius’s seventh symphony, which in some respects owes something to Schoenberg  whose Chamber Symphony, no 1, op. 9 prompted Sibelius into exploring the single-movement form. Conciseness is also an essential quality of the work in more ways than one. Osmo Vänskä’s reading, integrated the work's contrasting elements to form a view that realised the point that the symphony does not so much grow towards a conclusion as have the  conclusion borne  from its entirety. Music’s time based nature lends it this possibility in contrast to, say, the visual arts. With playing of greater assurance than in The Tempest, the Lahti orchestra showed the whole range of their capabilities here with their care for individual voices and textures, frequently dispatched with a near skittish exuberance. Particularly impressive were the muted brass lines heard against pizzicato violins and violas. For the Lahti group the heart of their Sibelian sound came from the mid-strings, with violas and cellos offering particularly distinctive tonal palette in response to Vänskä’s pointed, no-nonsense conducting.

In between the two works, came seven orchestrated songs, a trio apiece given to soprano Helena Juntunen and mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi, before they collaborated in a duet. Juntunen’s youthfully ardent tone offered more in the way of personal response to Sibelius’s romance-filled vocal lines. Even so, each of her songs was given a context of atmosphere – autumnal night, moonlit, or crisp winter – that was adroitly touched in by the Lahti players and Vänskä.  Paasikivi lacked for nothing her accompaniments either, her stately tone favouring some songs more than others. I felt she caught more of the mother’s questioning than the daughter’s anguish in Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote, for example.   The pastoral duet though was a delight, replete with nature references in the orchestration, and, like much else in the concert, was possessed of an acute sense of dynamic and rhythmic flow. A most enjoyable and uplifting evening.


Evan Dickerson 




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