The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Sunday night was a very different orchestra to the one we had heard on Saturday. It is refreshing to hear the difference that a clear beat makes, and Ilan Volkov certainly provided one. The orchestra – particularly the strings (and the third and fourth symphonies are heavily dependent on a solid string section) – was much tighter, especially in terms of togetherness over change in tempo. There were one or two tiny slips (a short passage in the Violin Concerto seemed to involve different sections of the orchestra being in different bars), but the orchestral ensemble remained well controlled, with themes emerging from the richness of Sibelius’ orchestration as they should. The middle movement of the third symphony was perhaps a little slow, but the accelerated passage at the end of the last movement (Hepokoski’s steam locomotive barrelling across a landscape) was a magical moment.
Julian Rachlin joined the orchestra for the virtuosic Violin Concerto which Sibelius wished he himself could have played. Rachlin has been playing the piece since he was a teenager, and he performed it from memory, communicating well with his audience, and giving a moving account of it, getting everything possible out of his instrument from angry slashed chords to the sweetest of high notes. These notes in the higher positions were beautifully toned, but there were one or two occasions when first-position arpeggios seemed a little hazy, although the incredibly challenging double-stopped bi-rhythmic passage in the slow movement was masterfully executed. Again, Volkov’s iron control ensured that the tricky passages where woodwind and solo violin need to work together across quite a distance, were perfectly together. As Rachlin announced after it was all over, Sibelius wrote no music for unaccompanied violin. He should have ended there, because, rather than leaving Sibelius’ mighty work to stand, he opted to break the mood by giving the audience an encore of the Ballade from the Third Sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe, a composer beloved of violinists, whose pieces often seem to be twenty percent music and eighty percent showmanship; Rachlin’s breakneck pace and jerky phrasing managed, alas, only to diminish the former and augment the latter.
If Michael Finnissy’s hommage piece Janne were a dish in a Michelin restaurant, it would probably be called ‘Textures of Sibelius’, and like such a dish, it was interesting – the lyrical bassoon-and-violin opening passage, the slow-beating timpani under woodwind chords, the driving violin passages, were all reminiscent of Sibelius’ brilliant orchestration techniques. But like many such dishes, it was ultimately unsatisfying and only increased the appetite for the real thing, which was soon served up, albeit in the austere form of the Fourth Symphony, in which Volkov conjured truly Sibelian textures from the orchestra, especially in the development towards the third movement’s transcendent main theme.