Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 (1906) [12:24]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1919) [30:36]
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Concerto for Orchestra (1954) [26:57]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, 20 February 2008 (Lutoslawski) and 15 October 2008 (Sibelius)

We all have our hobby-horses, and here is one of mine: why do so many conductors choose not to count out the beats of silence so carefully marked by Sibelius on the final page of his Fifth Symphony? Simon Rattle wasn’t afraid to, in 1987, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI), and the result is striking. Jukka-Pekka Saraste, in concert in 2008 – although he apparently wasn’t in concert for at least the final chord, as there is no applause; there are, however a few page turns, as well a cough or two that might also come from the platform – snips out at least a beat from between each of those massive chords. I can’t help thinking that had Sibelius been worried that the public might lose interest during the silences he would have found another solution, so why not respect his wishes? This is more of pity when it comes at the end of a finale which has been really rather successful. The constant semiquavers in the strings at the outset are beautifully clear, to the benefit of the music, and the great, swinging horn theme is magnificent, as is the coda, at least until those final chords. The earlier part of the performance, however, is disappointing. The very opening is ordinary, holding out little anticipation or expectation, a major disadvantage in this of all symphonies. Saraste keeps things moving, too, which doesn’t really help. As the work progresses one is made more aware than usual of how much “scrubbing” there is in the string parts, as the balance is often in their favour, making one of the work’s strengths seem like something close to misjudgement. The transition into the second movement – or the faster section of the first movement if you prefer – doesn’t evoke the required sense of wonder, as the tempo is already quite fast at the beginning of that remarkable passage, thus reducing the room for manoeuvre. This second movement, as is the case in the whole work, is extremely well played by the orchestra, but the accelerando isn’t very skilfully handled, and seems crude and lacks excitement, and important lines are again covered by secondary material. The tempo for the slow movement seems perfectly judged, but there’s something about the way the music is articulated that brings to it an unwanted nervousness. At the four-minute mark the score is marked “Tranquillo”, but it can’t really be said that tranquillity reigns at that point in this performance. Drawn to comparing this performance with others taken down from the shelves one sees how much detail other conductors have brought out at many points in the work. In spite of a well-judged account of the finale, then, this performance of the sublime Fifth is ultimately unsatisfying.

This is a pity, as the couplings are another matter. Saraste and the London Philharmonic Orchestra create just the right powerful and atmospheric atmosphere in Pohjola’s Daughter, with a particularly eloquent cello solo at the outset. And then the Lutoslawski, recorded earlier in the year, is given as brilliant a performance as one is likely to hear in concert. This three-movement work has become one of the composer’s most popular, and one can readily see why. There is certainly plenty of display, justifying the title, but this is one of those works in which Lutoslawski decided on the tactic of using folk-based material as a way of regaining the support and confidence of the Polish state authorities. A lesser composer might have surrendered his musical integrity, but Lutoslawski brilliantly managed both to express himself and to curry favour. Thus the work, though highly modernistic and using an advanced musical language, is audibly based on folk music, with much use of repeated melodic and rhythmic tags. The performers establish just the right imposing mood at the outset, and the rest of the performance maintains this mastery, through the gossamer scherzo second movement right to the end of the brilliant, virtuoso finale. I don’t know of any performance that is demonstrably finer or more exciting than this one, and that includes two conducted by the composer himself. It had the required effect in the hall, as the applause makes clear – complete, sadly and inevitably, with the idiot Bravo-Shouter, so concerned, once again, to show how well he knows the piece that he gets his call in, fortissimo, the instant the brilliant, whirlwind final phrase is completed.

The English-only accompanying notes from Andrew Mellor and Anthony Burton provide perfectly serviceable introductions to the three works. The recording has both clarity and impact, more than acceptable given the difficulty of establishing any kind of atmosphere in that particular venue.

William Hedley

Two very different twentieth-century masterpieces, with one brilliant performance and one disappointment.