It takes an ensemble of the quality of the London Symphony Orchestra and a conductor of Sir Colin Davis' stature to open the 2005-6 season with a programme of little-known works by Sibelius and make a success of it. Eschewing the safe Beethoven warhorses which their rivals predictably offer year after year, this remarkable team of players under their Principal Conductor launched a potentially riveting year of concerts with an exciting and sometimes overwhelming rendition of two works inspired by the Finnish folk-epic, the Kalevala: Sibelius' choral symphony Kullervo and his tone poem Pohjola's Daughter.
Nationalism is the backbone of many late-Romantic composers' works - think only of Smetana's Má vlast - but perhaps Sibelius' efforts at writing music as a national topos are the greatest of them all. With Finlandia he wrote the best-known tribute to any country by a composer, instantly becoming a hero amongst the Finns at a time when their legislative rights had been removed by Russia in 1900.
Yet the revelation of the LSO's concert was the way in which Sibelius tapped into his nation's legends to create music which is both vividly dramatic - to an almost operatic extent - and evocative of the Finnish landscape.
The programme opened with the short tone-poem - or 'Symphonic Fantasy', as the composer called it - Pohjola's Daughter. It's a one-movement work lasting well under the twenty minutes that the programme notes claim for it, yet it was so engrossingly performed that one's appetite for musical substance was almost satiated by the early interval. Depicting the wizard-hero Väinämöinen's frustrated and humiliating attempt to cajole the daughter of the moon-god Pohjola to join him in his sleigh, on which he rides off in anger at the story's conclusion, the piece uses a wide palette of orchestral colours to conjure up a mystical atmosphere.
Particularly striking is the use of the wind section which pervades nearly every page of the score, creating a sound almost unique to this work. The LSO's wind players were in excellent form, from the beginning with bassoon, bass clarinet and contrabassoon forming a sombre combination to suggest 'the dark realm of Pohjola', to the beautifully ringing tone of the flute, oboe and cor anglais at the icy conclusion. Deserving of a special mention is the principal cellist Tim Hugh, whose key role in the opening bars was genuinely chilling.
The key event of the evening was a performance of the mammoth Kullervo Symphony, involving the full complement of orchestral forces plus the gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus and two solo singers. Generically speaking, the work is unique, showing the characteristics of a straightforward symphony in three movements and a dramatic cantata in the third and fifth. The Introduction was solidly played, with a sense of vibrancy from the strings, whilst the second movement, Kullervo's Youth, was grave and somewhat poignant.
But it was with the third movement that the performance reached fifth gear. From the opening bars one was reminded of Colin Davis' talents as an opera conductor, an ideal co-ordinator of large resources to make a drama come to life. Kullervo and his sister tells of the main protagonist's seduction of a beautiful girl, who eventually turns out to be his sister. The chorus was in rip-roaring form, narrating the story with an appropriate sense of the macabre.
Peter Mattei was the baritone soloist playing Kullervo, and although his singing impressed, especially in the disquieting fifth movement when the guilt-ridden character kills himself, I found his awkward physical stance an impediment. Vocally, the words were well pointed, but the sight of such tension in the shoulders and such wayward hands meant his performance lacked conviction from the dramatic point of view.
His sister was sung by Monica Groop, who lacked the power of Mattei's voice but was sweet of tone and much more moving and convincing as this clearly very troubled character. Particularly captivating was her long monologue towards the end of the third movement, which was sensuous and impassioned.
Again the LSO was outstanding, with the fourth movement - Kullervo goes to battle - revealing their very best sound, provoking a ripple of applause and confirming their stature as of one of the three or four greatest orchestras in the world.
It would have been difficult to celebrate the launch of the new season - and the UBS Choral Masterworks series (which continues with Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius in December) - with a more impressive performance. It has been recorded for the LSO Live label, and will no doubt become another benchmark recording to add to their enterprising series.