wed 07/12/2022

Total Immersion: Sibelius the Storyteller, Barbican review - a feast of sagas and psychic masterpieces | reviews, news & interviews

Total Immersion: Sibelius the Storyteller, Barbican review - a feast of sagas and psychic masterpieces

Total Immersion: Sibelius the Storyteller, Barbican review - a feast of sagas and psychic masterpieces

Orchestral, choral, song and melodrama: the gamut of the Finn's utterly individual world

Anu Komsi, Sakari Oramo, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and members of the BBC Symphony OrchestraAll concert images by Mark Allan

If there’s a dud or a dullard among Sibelius’s 116 official opus numbers, I haven’t heard it. Yet catching even many of the outright masterpieces live in concert isn’t easy; the brevity that can show us a world in under 10 minutes makes some difficult to programme.

All hail, then, to the BBC and scholar/biographer Daniel Grimley for mapping the Finn’s legendary universe in three concerts of wall-to-wall Sibelius and another placing his two main pupils’ choral music alongside his own.

Missing Grimley’s morning introduction was excusable: at exactly that time I was submitting to the pneumatic-drill judders of an MRI scan. But I’m thankful to hospital staff for giving me an earlier slot as I’d have missed one of the four main events. The sequence was perfect: songs and melodramas from students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the first of Sakari Oramo’s concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra giving us symphonic poems that hardly ever get programmed (when did you last hear that soulful work of genius The Bard in concert?), the BBC Singers in choral works and the evening concert in which Oramo and his orchestra (pictured below) were joined by his soprano wife, the riveting performer Anu Komsi. A good way to celebrate the 2011 event which got him the post of the BBCSO’s still-adored Chief Conductor, where we first heard Komsi embody the creation-myth Luonnotar alongside songs by Saariaho, the Third Symphony and Bax’s Tintagel. Sakari Oramo and the BBCSOThough I could have done without hearing a slightly preachy introduction three times over (to be told to “open your ears” once is bad enough), the spoken links were very welcome in giving us so much poetry by the poet Runeberg – like Sibelius himself, first and foremost a Swedish-speaking Finn – and the world of the Kalevala, that composite of Finnish myths from the oral tradition which laid the foundation-stone of national pride in the early 19th century. I confess I’m slightly surprised that the young men among the speakers were respectively third year and graduate drama students, but we did get some poetic readings from Shayde Sinclair and Laura Lake Adibisi, and hypnotic melodrama narration (in Swedish – English would have made more sense) from Stockholm-born Aina Miyagi Magnell, compelling to watch as well as hear.

Her biggest moment in the spotlight, Nights of Jealousy, is a headily romantic narration with piano trio (violinist Violetta Suvini, cellist Gabriel Francis-Dehqani and pianist Luke Lally Maguire) and, briefly, wordless soprano (Caroline Bourg, light but radiant in four songs earlier), its most beautiful lyric inspiration reworked as the fourth of the piano impromptus. I was lucky to hear it as part of Leif Ove Andsnes’ programming at the Bergen Festival, where the male speaker was more apt to the subject, but it was exquisitely delivered here. Much shorter, A Lonely Ski-Trail is one of Sibelius’s most haunting elliptical landscapes, and Edward Picton-Turbervill, one of the three Guildhall pianists involved, effortlessly projected its atmosphere.

Felix GygliSibelius’s piano writing isn’t always idiomatic, and at the very start of the programme, the equally nuanced Thomas Jesty had to deal with textures that seem to cry out for orchestration. But “Under the Fir-Trees” from the early 1890s, a dramatic tale of a scary water-goblin luring mortals to the depths, could hardly be by any other composer, with one folkish tune looking across to the fourth movement of the near-contemporary Kullervo Symphony, and Felix Gygli (pictured right) – an already impressive baritone we’ll be hearing much more from – delivered it with due intensity. Vintage Sibelius, too, is the first to be heard in the late-afternoon concert from the mixed-chorus partsongs, “The Boat Journey”, a lusty celebration of Kalevala hero Väinämöinen and his herdsman passing islands and inlets, keenly watched by the female inhabitants. The BBC Singers conducted by Owain Park launched their craft with rollicking aplomb and vivid projection of the Finnish text.

It contrasted strikingly with poignant lament in “My Heart’s Lament”, infant mortality expressed with reference to Finnish mythology’s underworld, Tuonela. The choral songs which followed, by Sibelius’s two fine pupils Madetoja and Kuula, took us into more conventional territory – accomplished work, but after the liveliness of the first two Madetoja numbers, the keynote was soporific crepuscularity. Genius returned with one of Sibelius’s three settings of amatory verse in the Kantelatar, Rakastava (The Lover). We know the three-movement work best in its attractive string-orchestra arrangement, but the lively texts, with solos poetically taken by Helen Neeves and Jamie W Hall, cover lovers’ anticipation, meeting and parting in a riveting eight minutes: the polar opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and equally unique.

For all the attempted packaging of works into different themes for each of the four concerts, what struck home here and in the two orchestral programmes was how Sibelius could condense epic miracles into music-dramas of astonishing brevity. You hold your breath in every bar of The Bard, a sombre swansong into which the ancient sound of the lur breaks apocalyptically on the trombones before the magical coda, laying the singer to rest in a major chord as profound as that at the end of Sibelius’s last tone-poem Tapiola (only a couple of weeks ago I was marvelling at how Robin Ticciati in Berlin placed that at the end of a programme, which hardly ever happens, and yet it did so here given the singular nature of the all-Sibelius itineraries; and The Bard is usually in danger of simply not being placed at all because of its singular, uncompromising nature). Ólafur Darri ÓlafssonOf the dynamic journeys in Oramo’s two Barbican concerts, En saga is the only one which feels a bit too long, but perhaps it has the best tunes; and the conductor conjured more magic at its chamber-musical still centre and coda subsiding into infinity, with supreme artistry from first clarinet Richard Hosford. The "All’Overtura" of the Scènes historiques hooks us with its ideas and colours at the very start, while Night Ride and Sunrise – an often-overlooked eccentricity which I’ve never heard in concert before – casts its spell with galloping rhythms and unorthodox flights, melody emerging late on before Sibelius’s singular take on the dawning of the light. Pohjola’s Daughter manages to combine feats of virtuoso orchestration in Sibelius’s idiosyncratic emulation of Straussian heroism with compelling storytelling which pits the labours of Väinämöinen with the shining radiance of the Maiden of the North, spinning on her rainbow.

For both orchestral concerts we had the word-magic of narrator Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (pictured above), gripping in the metres of the Kalevala as translated so well into English by Grimley. But we could have had more of this tale, so that listeners would know what impossible task – building a boat from her spindle – the Maid has asked the hero to accomplish. No matter; heroic failure, a keynote of Sibelius’s Kalevala protagonists, is so clear in the quick burnout of the end. Anu KomsiTapiola had its moments in this performance, but it may well be that the Barbican’s lack of depth gave it less of an impact than the two others I’ve heard in recent months – Klaus Mäkelä’s with the Oslo Philharmonic at the Proms and Ticciati’s with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin. The absolute knockout of this final concert was Komsi living her three numbers. “The Echo Nymph”, orchestrated by Jussi Jalas, was preceded by nature-spirit ululations from the side of the stage (pictured above); “Sunrise”, another evocation impacting well beyond its three-minute span, brought perfect vocal fusion with Sibelius’s own extraordinary orchestral colours. But it was Luonnotar, greatest masterpiece of all Sibelius’s ten-or-less-minute masterpieces, which offered the biggest sensation.

Komsi, as before, became the Kalevala’s primeval daughter of air who descends to swim around in the waters for 700 years. Her invocation to great god Ukko had extraordinary fervour; then came the hieratic raising of arms, lowered to bring down the bird that will make its nest on Luonnotar’s raised knee; from cracked duck eggs come the moon and stars. That alone was worth the whole day; but so many other wonders crowd in on the imagination, food for thought and feeling over the weeks to come.

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