sat 07/12/2019

Prom 20: Kuusisto, BBCSSO, Dausgaard review – Sibelius between folk and art | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 20: Kuusisto, BBCSSO, Dausgaard review – Sibelius between folk and art

Prom 20: Kuusisto, BBCSSO, Dausgaard review – Sibelius between folk and art

Tastes of the composer's Finnish roots – and the first edition of a masterpiece

Trad roots, high art: Pekka Kuusistoall images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

I’m not quite sure that I should review this Prom, since I performed in it. Before anyone summons the white coats, let me clarify. As the encore to a mind-expanding evening, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto returned to the stage with his band of folk musicians. He asked the audience to hum a sort of drone, and then sing open-mouthed, as they sung and played a traditional song. How did we do? OK, I thought. It made a fittingly unorthodox finale to a rule-flouting programme which will have delighted many ears but left some concert purists not just with open mouths, but jaws on the floor.

How often do we read about the alleged folk roots of the great “national” composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? But how infrequently do musicians and their patrons take any steps to help us hear those legacies, rather than simply trust a programme note. On Saturday, Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra prefaced two familiar works from today’s standard repertoire – Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and his Fifth Symphony (but performed last night in its lesser-known, original version) – with mini-concerts of Finnish folk music. These preludes invited us to spot the folk themes’ affinities with motifs from the two masterworks – but also to decide for ourselves what, precisely, the master himself did with these echoes. Dausgaard asked us to go “jumping in and out of Sibelius’s window”. We listened to the traditional sounds outside, and noticed levels of allusion that ranged from “striking similarities” in some tunes to distant aural memories – no more than “just a scent” – in others. Along with Kuusisto, in his folk-fiddler mode, the utterly engaging messengers from this old Finnish sound-world (pictured above) were singers Taito Hoffrén, Ilona Korhonen and Minna-Liisa Tammela, with arranger Timo Alakotila on the harmonium and Vilma Kantele playing the eerily lovely kantele – a zither-like horizontal harp.

More so than with many of his peers, this was a provocative frame in which to place Sibelius – who insisted that his unique, hard-won soundscapes never depended on borrowed musical folklore. Yet for all its anti-programmatic self-sufficiency, every listener to Sibelius somehow hears in his music the landscapes and accents of his native land. The preludes allowed us to appreciate – if not resolve – this paradox. Yes, the melodies from old Finnish song collections, chanted and played by our ad hoc country band and their rune singers, evidently rhymed with figures and motifs that we hear in the two major works. Equally, the changes Sibelius wrought on these faint, perhaps dimly remembered, folk elements feel utterly transformative. I had some doubts, too, about the presentation of the traditional material. The BBCSSO partnered the Finns, playing relevant snatches of the finished works to come (which followed the preludes without a break) as a sort of background muzak. This felt like a needless distraction. With these fine performers on stage, I would have preferred an undiluted shot of Finnish traditional styles, rather than a cocktail that mixed the sounds outside Sibelius’s window with the personal magic he summoned within.

So the experimental aspect of the evening had its drawbacks. Had Dausgaard kept the two musical domains clearly separate, he might have made the case for Sibelius’s haunting by popular traditions even more powerfully. Equally, once he and his admirably rich-toned, high-geared Glasgow orchestra moved into the concerto and symphony themselves, it proved fairly easy to forget the speculative lessons about their origins that we had just absorbed. As a soloist in the concerto, Kuusisto (pictured above) sounded as winning, warm and mercurial as we expect from this free-spirited innovator. Compared to the chanceless mastery to be heard from Viktoria Mullova and Paavo Järvi at the RFH in May, Kuusisto’s vagabond style does court risks – above all, of a kind of wandering-minstrel detachment from the band. 

The balance seemed awry at times during the opening allegro, although Kuusisto’s freewheeling approach played splendid dividends in the explosive cadenza. As the fiddler skipped and dodged through the movement’s tumbling profusion of ideas, the BBCSSO – its dark brass an especially formidable presence at the back – anchored his journey with robust and earthy flavours of its own. The long, reflective adagio supplied a beautiful showcase for Kuusisto’s more tender, introspective side. In the stomping dance of the finale he sailed through the perilous high-speed passages of double-stops and crossed strings with dazzling aplomb and sheer cheek. Big-boned, tightly-controlled orchestral tutti enhanced the thrills. Then came a first-half encore, genial yet melancholic, of a Sibelius Humoresque: the idea of “longing” distilled, Kuusisto told us. Which goes for much of the mighty Finn’s output. 

With the Fifth Symphony, Dausgaard (pictured above) chose to play the rarely-heard original version from 1915. The now-ubiquitous 1919 revision was in fact this work’s third iteration. Packed with revealing episodes, this return to the source showed how closely and intently Sibelius re-fashioned his own ideas; and how relatively minor modifications can entirely change the emotional climate of a much-loved work. In a nutshell, the 1915 Fifth feels darker, more troubled, more dissonant, less gloriously affirmative – more obviously a successor to the pitiless, modernistic austerity of the Fourth. That great “swan theme” for the horns in the finale that seemingly sets the world to rights here sounds muted, plaintive, fragile; subject to dissonant interventions from the strings and elsewhere in the brass. A neurotic hunter’s gun may pot those swans at any moment. Mysterious woods, rather than attention-grabbing horns, begin the first movement, which ends abruptly before lurching into the nervous lilt of the scherzo as a separate section. Tense pizzicato strings dominate the adagio, its lyricism overshadowed by truncated, almost-minimalist motifs. Even the massive brass chords that strike like destiny at the symphony’s 1919 conclusion now sound out with scurrying interventions between them. If the Fifth we know can sound like a heroic defiance of its chaotic, revolutionary age, the 1915 version feels vitally, but anxiously, immersed in it. 

All of which Dausgaard and the BBCSSO conveyed with ferocious commitment and a varied palette of well-defined colours. I relished the edgy bite of the flutes in the (original) scherzo; the moody horns and frenetic plucked strings of the adagio; not to mention the positively shocking brass disruptions of those soaring swans, along with the pianissimo strings that ushered in the now-ambiguous tutti of the finale. Curiously, this impassioned account of a highly-wrought and broodingly intense work made Sibelius sound like more of an avant-garde explorer, and less of a homely “folk” composer, than the version we normally hear. He remains a great, fathomless paradox. With Dausgaard and Kuusisto as our guides, it was a treat to dive further into his depths. Meanwhile, the folk-ensemble prelude might suit plenty of other pioneers, from Brahms to Stravinsky, Britten to Bartok. Worth a Proms try?

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