In the second concert in his first ever Sibelius cycle, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted two of his countryman’s finest symphonies: the Fourth and Seventh.
American composer Steven Stucky had the daunting task of providing a companion piece for these two landmarks of twentieth century music.
His one-movement Radical Light, here receiving its European premiere, served the purpose more than adequately.
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to write the piece specifically for this programme, Stucky chose to emulate the structure of Sibelius’ great last symphony, a huge arc of sound that, despite its ostensible four movements, flows with hardly discernible changes and without a break. While having neither the desolation of Sibelius’ Fourth nor the majesty of the Seventh, Radical Light has something of the mood and texture of both. Beginning on slow elongated notes in the strings, a rising motif builds in momentum before breaking into a fluttering dance theme then returning to solemn bass chords before taking off for the heights once more.
This repeated ebb and flow felt less like a rollercoaster than a flight in a hot air balloon over hilly terrain, occasional sunshine bursting through the greying landscape, ending suddenly with a frozen tableau of reverberating sound and bows held aloft. How nice to have no applause until long after the final percussive vibrations had died away and the conductor signalled that the piece was fully finished.
Would that there had been as good audience behaviour during the Fourth Symphony that opened the concert. Salonen was highly sensitive to what was going on in the auditorium and it’s a pity this wasn’t reciprocated. He held off beginning until an elderly couple, seemingly oblivious to the effect they were having, settled themselves in the front row and then after the second movement an invasion of latecomers held the music up for an eternity as they noisily found their seats. This interruption to so delicate and sensitive a work at this point cast a very dark shadow over the Barbican’s misjudged and insensitive housekeeping.
Whether this affected the orchestra’s concentration is difficult to say but, through both this and the later Seventh symphony, I found a smudginess of sound and a lack of the sort of emotional intensity that made Colin Davis’ performances of these works in this same hall so memorable a few years ago.
Salonen describes in the programme notes how, as a youngster, he left Finland to escape the influence of its greatest composer who “permeate(d) every molecule of the musical oxygen I breathed.” The following quarter of a century has given him plenty of time to find a way back into this marvellous music but this pairing of two of the greatest symphonies Sibelius wrote gave us little that was new or particularly engaging.
We had to wait for the encore, a vibrant and atmospheric Finlandia, for a truly resonant and ringing sound and I for one left this concert a little disappointed that my high expectations of Salonen’s Sibelius were not fulfilled.