Sibelius: States of Independence
Elgar, R Straus, Sibelius
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Thierry Fischer, Alina Ibragimova
Royal Festival Hall, 31 May 2029
Elgar: Serenade for strings
R Strauss: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.8
Sibelius: Symphony No.2
We are used to period instrument performances of music of the Baroque and Classical era but not yet, perhaps, so familiar with 19th and 20th-century repertoire played on instruments that the composer would have known. Prominent amongst the promoters of this manner of performance is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, most notably in their more recent foray into the 19th-century repertoire, including recent performances of Mahler and Liszt. They have now moved the explorations forward into the early 20th-century with this focus on Sibelius’s 2nd Symphony, composed in 1902. It was contrasted with Elgar’s 1892 Serenade for strings and Richard Strauss’s rarely performed 1882 Violin Concerto. The whole concert spanned just 20 years of a period of rising European nationalism and raised issues of the contrast between national and international music. It closed the OAE’s 2018/19 season under the banner of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness which, in turn, is part of their six-year ‘Chapters of Enlightenment’ season that started in 2017.
The key moment in the opening Elgar Serenade for strings came in the central Larghetto when Thierry Fischer reduced the sound of the large orchestra down to a magical and barely audible murmur. An extraordinary sound, and something only possible with the gut strings whose mellow timbre was a key feature of the whole concert, and with musicians of the quality of the OAE.
Representing the Germanic musical tradition was Richard’s Strauss’s Violin Concerto, written when he was just 18 and still at school, having already composed his first Symphony two years earlier. It is rarely performed, not least because of its enormous technical difficulty, and his later music, not surprisingly, surpasses the quality of this piece, which tends to look back in historical style rather than forward to the mature Strauss. It opens in a rather martial manner, full of the bravado of youth. An elegiac central Lento, ma non troppo leads to a jovial final Rondo, with a skittish staccato opening. Lifting the music into the stratosphere was the outstanding violin playing of Alina Ibragimova. I first heard her as a rather shy young student playing unaccompanied Bach. Now an international star, not least for her solo Bach performances at the BBC Proms, she gave a powerfully sensitive performance of this technically demanding work, full of double and treble stopping. But it was the more delicate moments that really counted, as did her extraordinary ability to collaborate with the orchestra, who very clearly loved working with her. It is rare to see an entire orchestra bursting in enthusiastic applause at the end of a concerto, but their response was thoroughly deserved.
Sibelius’ referred to his 2nd Symphony as “a confession of the soul”. It was hailed by commentators as a protest against Russian occupation and call for Finnish national identity, although Sibelius denied any such connotations. It was composed a year after his ‘Finlandia’. The supporter who gave that piece its name offered Sibelius a winter sojourn in Italy and that is where he wrote the Symphony, in Rapallo. The mood is nonetheless evocatively Finish through and through. The extraordinary opening movement runs through a kaleidoscope of different themes and moods, in sharp contrast to traditional Sonata form Symphonic structures, yet he manages to make the whole thing sound like a coherent whole.
As with the two earlier pieces, the key aspect of this performance was the sound of the period instruments and the outstanding playing by the OAE. Along with the gut strings were the wonderfully penetrating sound of the oboes, the guttural clarinets and brass. We learnt from an entertaining chat by trombonist Philip Dale that the three trombones were made in the same year as the Symphony, and I am sure that other instruments were of similar vintage. Key individual contributions came from leader Aisslinn Nosky, oboeist Nicholas Danial, Antony Par, clarinet, Gavin Edwards, horn, Neil Brough, trumpet and, perhaps most notably, Adrian Bending with the important timpani part.
Thierry Fischer replaced Vladimir Jurowski as OAE conductor for the short tour of this programme. He excelled in his interpretation and direction of the OAE, working well with the players and controlling the pulse and pacing well, notably in Sibelius’s various link-passages. He encouraged a wide range of volumes, notably with some wonderfully delicate moments. I have heard this symphony many times, but still managed to hear things that I had never spotted before, not least because of the use of appropriate instruments and playing styles.
A pre-concert talk was given by Dr Robert Samuels from the Music Department at The Open University, who have a partnership with the OAE. He discussed ‘Nationalism in Music’, setting the Sibelius Symphony into its cultural and historical context.