Nicholas Kenyon took the risk of putting all his eggs in one basket as the Proms marked the 15th anniversary of the death of Jean Sibelius – and his gamble paid off handsomely.
Osmo Vänska has done more for the composer in recent years than any scholar or conductor, so it was wholly appropriate for him to lead his Lahti charges in a full and generous all-Sibelius programme.
Still more so as it provided us with rare insights into the composer’s theatre music, unfamiliar even to Prommers – which may explain the initial restraint to the applause for The Tempest, as the rain appropriately hammered on the Albert Hall dome. At seventy minutes with barely a pause for breath this is a demanding listen, but under Vänska the music came alive, successfully communicating Sibelius’ daring word settings, economy of expression and compressed power.
Here he was helped by a fulsome Ariel (Lilli Paasikivi), who with the other four vocal soloists stood between choir and orchestra, slightly backward in the balance. Tenors Juha Hostikka and Petri Lehto were joined by baritone Ville Rusanen as roguish brigands, while the choir excelled with their unanimity of voice, particularly in the chilly Chorus of the Winds.
The orchestra, too, were superb, conveying every nuance as Vänska demanded. Clarinettists Henna Jämsä and Matti Rouvali duetted in a baleful Humoresque, the mysterious harp ripples of The Oak Tree enchanted, and the accompaniment to Ariel’s Fifth Song flickered with characterful string accompaniment. The arresting Prelude took us smack into the path of the storm’s waves, while the jubilant Cortége promised resolution at the end, only to be checked by a majestic but questioning Epilogue.
Such is Sibelius’ biggest theatre score, a thread of concise yet contrasting numbers that could prove a struggle to interpret in the wrong hands – yet not here.
Given that Sibelius stopped composing twenty five years before his death, the notion of ‘late’ works should be qualified as such – though his last symphony, the Seventh, formed the climax of the concert’s second half. Before that, soprano Helena Juntunen, briefly glimpsed in The Tempest, was joined by Paasikivi in singing three songs each, before the duo closed together. Juntunen was the star, soaring effortlessly but with no little power in Höstkväll, before a more languid Arioso.
Paasikivi, meanwhile, was fuller of tone for Demanten p marssnön, joining Juntunen for a beautifully judged Autrefois, one of conductor Vänska’s many recent Sibelius discoveries.
Once again Vänska applied his logical interpretation to the Seventh Symphony and its unique, masterly single movement format. At times brisk but never brusque, his was a characteristically translucent account, bringing out the variants of the majestic trombone theme, but careful to ensure the music answering and surrounding it was equally well heard.
It was another triumph in a hugely rewarding evening of music, one that confirmed Sibelius’ standing as one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, but perhaps underlined how difficult his music can be to understand.