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Sibelius and Segerstam: Elina Vähälä (violin), London Schools Symphony Orchestra. Leif Segerstam, Barbican Hall London 7.1.2009 (GD)

Sibelius: Symphony No 7 in C, op.105
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47
Segerstam: Symphony No 189, Marimekko (first performance)
Sibelius: Finlandia, op.26/7   

Elina Vähälä -  Picture © Laura Riihelä Potkastudios

his was a most inspiring concert including the first performance of Leif Segerstam’s Symphony No 189 – he is even a more prolific a symphonist than Haydn! – and the terse, enigmatic last symphonic statement of his great fellow Finn Sibelius. I make a special note of this as in many ways Segerstam’s symphony is similar to Sibelius’s Seventh in duration and in its intricate and complex interweaving of thematic material. Like the Sibelius symphony Segerstam’s work lasts about twenty minutes and is full of tonal, harmonic shifts. Segerstam has amusingly commented in his free-floating English that the work requires no ‘’kaleidoscopic flexator’ (meaning a conductor). Instead, Segerstam sat at the back of the stage, left-hand side, and gave the basic lead in his improvisatory obbligato piano part. The symphony does not develop in the standard, sonata, style, but is more discontinuous with its interconnecting relay of bi-tonal harmonic clusters, which punctuate a rondo-like pattern mediated by more lyrical and reflective moments. Segerstam employs a fairly large orchestra with a wide ranging percussion section. Segerstam took the title Marimekko from the colourful Finnish architectural house design, and he sees this architectural and semantic word-play as inextricably linked to his music, acting as an interconnecting discourse. One felt a real sense of dialogue in the playing between each orchestral section and a greater sense of orchestral improvisation resulted from the absence of a conductor in the conventional mode.

The concert opened with a truly inspired delivery of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. As his recordings demonstrate, Segerstam is a master of Sibelius’s symphonic architectural structure. I have rarely heard the great themes, punctuated by the broad trombone idea, delivered with such an inevitability and power. This was not power in the sense of mere loudness or whipped up energy but something emerging inexorably from the work’s tonal/harmonic structure, rather in the ‘magisterial’ manner we used to hear with Klemperer. The final minor key clash of dissonance which shatters the preceding C major’s ring of hope was as convincingly conveyed as I have ever heard in concert or on record. The young players excelled themselves, and despite some slight problems of ensemble, their sheer musicality and enthusiasm won through with Segerstam taking them into regions of musical/emotional complexity well beyond their years. Indeed, the general excellence of their playing often exceeded that of professional orchestras.  

After the opening Sibelius symphony the young Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä delivered a most convincing performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. She played with the same lucidity and tonal contrast heard in the recent recording of another Finn, Pekka Kuusisto, also accompanied by Segerstam with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Although Vähälä used more judiciously chosen rubato than Kuusisto, she received the same idiomatic and sympathetic accompaniment from Segerstam and the LSSO. Of particular note were the assured pacing and gradation of climaxes in the opening Allegro moderato. Soloist and conductor were always in dialogue with each other with sombre pacing and eloquent phrasing in the stoical Adagio di Molto and in projecting the exuberant (if sometimes laconic) wit of the final Allegro ma non tanto.

After the conductorless Segerstam symphony premi
re, Segerstam the conductor ended the concert with a rousing performance of Finlandia - a suitably jubilant coda to an outstanding concert. A real occasion! 

Geoff Diggines

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