sun 26/05/2024

Pogostkina, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican review - human emotions in Sibelius's heaven | reviews, news & interviews

Pogostkina, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican review - human emotions in Sibelius's heaven

Pogostkina, BBCSO, Oramo, Barbican review - human emotions in Sibelius's heaven

Death transcended, and a blaze of light and love in a great symphony

Sakari Oramo at the opening concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's 2017-18 seasonAll images by Mark Allan

It was on the strength of a single concert including a startling Sibelius Luonnotar and Third Symphony, thankfully reported here, that Sakari Oramo was appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

We had to wait a while for more major Sibelius from them, revelling in the meanwhile in the team’s superlative Nielsen cycle. But their Kullervo at the Proms was unsurpassable – even if I’ve just heard one as good, in a different way, from the young conductor who had his first break thanks to Oramo, Santtu-Matias Rouvali – and now, at last, come all seven numbered symphonies this side of Christmas.

Constant Lambert, writing in his pithy survey of music up to 1932 Music Ho!, saw Sibelius – who by then had more or less ceased to compose  as the one light in semi-darkness, the only way forward. The symphonies remain a deep testing-ground for any interpreter, and personally I can’t hear them too often; hearing Rouvali, then Oramo and next Esa-Pekka Salonen in succession can only be cause for excitement, for hearing new things in these fathomless works. While Lambert was wrong about what he thought was the ephemeral nature of Stravinsky’s neo-everything, borrowing from the past with huge individuality, he was spot on about how Schoenberg’s dodecaphony, his rigid system built on the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, would pass. It took a long time, but now it’s turned out to be only one movement among many. Berg still seems the one figure who truly humanised it, and to hear his Violin Concerto of 1934 between Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration and Sibelius’s Fifth last night proved enlightening.

Pogostkina, Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Not, it has to be said, in the expected way. Most violinists play it as a desperate struggle against death, taking their cue from the putative dedication to the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, Manon, who died suddenly at the age of 18. Subsequent scholarship suggests that the “angel” of its dedication could have been Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the woman Berg described as his “one and only eternal love”. How, then, to account for the consolation of Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug” (“It is enough”) towards the end of the work? For Alina Pogostkina (pictured above with Oramo and the orchestra), this was pure abstraction – not without emotion, but smilingly in focus throughout. If that deprived the chorale, beautifully led by the BBCSO clarinets, of its potential catharsis and kept tears very much at bay, it was a refreshing take, fine-tuned and very much part of the orchestral textures Oramo revealed so tellingly; sometimes brass solos, muted or otherwise, took pride of place over the violin. Unnatural, perhaps, for a violinist not to have broken any apparent sweat over the work, but worth hearing it this way, with ears refreshed, once in a lifetime.

The first half of two very different struggles with death began with Strauss’s more callow imagining, as a relatively young man, of how it might be. The sick-room opening, with flautist Daniel and guest oboist Emily Pailthorpe poetically joining hands, was exquisitely done, the pain and the memories focused with typical Oramo drive; but this afterlife felt a little perfunctory – a special light needs shining on Strauss’s straightforward material here. More space in the pacing and the acoustic might have pulled it off.

The new LSO partnership actually has its equal hereUp in Sibelius’s plains of heaven, though, not a foot or a note went awry, even if the surprisingly passionate feelings outlined so strikingly from woodwind, first trumpet and violins  led last night by the vivacious Maya Iwabuchi  showed us a very human attempt to negotiate unknown territory. Those amazing string scythings on the way to a peak which, amazingly, Sibelius only found in the revised versions of what was originally a four-movement symphony, made the hair stand on end; once reached, the violins rose up ecstatically against the fanfares before dropping back to quiet neutral so that the whole process could begin again, ever faster.

Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Oramo is a master at the oscillations of two unusual middle movements – the one in the Third as much as this Andante mosso, quasi allegretto – and highlights the drama that unexpectedly erupts. Striking, indeed, the suspension of a string chord before the movement’s cheerful resolution. Then straight on to perhaps the most glorious of all symphonic finales, bringing an onrush of deep emotion as the horns began their swinging motif, intensified with the added quirk of the woodwind's swan-cries in the last slow burn. Oramo’s flexibility in tempi, even when it brought some surprising extremes, seemed absolutely right; and with the upper strings returning to the movement's opening buzz in extreme pianissimo, we had our parallel with Rattle’s Firebird trick the previous week. A reminder that the new LSO partnership actually has its equal here, in unquestionably the most viscerally exciting Sibelius Five I’ve heard and a relationship in which all the players, uniquely, seem to love their Chief Conductor.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters