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The Sibelius Cycle - The Titfield Thunderbolt
Heisenberg might have stayed here
qatsi
qatsi
The Sibelius Cycle
It's been a great weekend at the Proms, with three very well attended concerts for the Sibelius cycle. In recent years I've often heard people say that the queue doesn't get going until late, but this year it's been populated from quite early on. The pre-Prom talk on Saturday was a discussion about the symphonies and picked out one or two interesting points, such as the way the Finnish language with its emphasis on the first syllable often finds its way into Sibelius's rhythms, or the blunt Nordic idiom: (Mahler: "Which of your works would you recommend I conduct?" Sibelius: "None of them.")

The concert on Saturday opened with Finlandia, before moving on to the Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2. It was a fair performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted energetically by Thomas Dausgaard, but not a brilliant one. I was a few rows back, and my own feeling was that the performance of the second symphony I heard at the Proms last year was better, and afterwards I've heard several people picking out things they weren't too keen on, such as wayward tempi. Nevertheless, they used antiphonal seating to good effect, particularly in the first symphony.

The second concert in the cycle, on Sunday evening, was surprisingly busy, although I was in the second row. The orchestra was the same, this time conducted by Ilan Volkov, so it was interesting to see the difference a conductor can make. Right from the start, the performance of Symphony No. 3 was clearly something special, with a very striking and crisp sound and the punctuated rhythm I'd heard about in the talk. It's one of the symphonies I don't know so well and I should make an effort to listen to it more. Taking a diversion from the symphonies, Julian Rachlin joined the orchestra for a sparkling performance of the Violin Concerto. As he pointed out, Sibelius had not left any music for solo violin, so he gave some additional fireworks from Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 3 as an encore. After the interval, a BBC commission: the premiere of Michael Finnissy's Janne, a set of variations loosely inspired by Sibelius and the folk epic, the Kalevala. I've heard worse but I probably won't be rushing to listen again, and this did make the concert rather long for a Sunday evening. Back to Sibelius for the final work, Symphony No. 4. Again this was well played. It's probably the darkest of the symphonies and, though perfectly logical, made for a difficult end to the concert.

With the weekend out of the way, Monday's concert with the fifth symphony was nevertheless always going to be popular, and again I was a few rows back. In the late afternoon a line of birds flew in formation over the Hall: probably geese in this case, but nevertheless reminiscent of Sibelius's own writing about the "swan hymn" theme. Taking the final concert in the cycle were the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vämskä. Again it was logical but perhaps awkward to begin with Symphony No. 5. Vämskä danced awkwardly around the rostrum as he directed, at times possibly the quietest orchestral music I have ever heard. Towards the ending of the first movement the music accelerated spectacularly, and it was quite breathtaking; but Vämskä kept the standard high throughout the symphony. After the interval, the curious Symphony No. 6, with its ancient and austere modes; then the single-movement Symphony No. 7. Most often I would expect the resolution of the final C major chord to be triumphant, but Vämskä gave it only a very modest mark: a rather ambivalent conclusion. Vämskä is famed for sticking to the score so I'm not doubting him; but for me it was an unconventional end that wasn't really an end, and perhaps pointed to the assumed destroyed eighth symphony. The symphonies are over, but there's more Sibelius to come yet in this anniversary season.

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