Peer Gynt and Lemminkäinen on their travels, arriving in Berlin, their composers’ Scandinavian compatriot Sakari Oramo conjuring vivid details and much evocation, opening with a rapturous, woodwind-distinguished, ‘Morning Mood’ from Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s play and ending in ‘The Hall of the Mountain King’, from ominous tread to accelerating uproar, via a (strings-only) tender and deeply-felt ‘Death of Åse’ and an airy ‘Anitra’s Dance’ in which point, shading and dynamic variance were paramount; seductively sultry.
Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Legends are from early in his output (if revised) and predate his Seven Symphonies. The named Kalevala-enshrined hero, the work opening with baleful, attention-commanding horns, becomes passionate with the ‘Maidens of Saari’. Oramo, synonymous with Sibelius (but I have no wish to pigeonhole him), has a revealing rapport with this music, alive to its musical organisation as much as its illustration, drama and intensity. If the Legends as a whole is something of a Cinderella opus, ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ is not. It came next, reflecting Sibelius’s re-think about the movements’ ordering; of course, the composer must be respected, but I prefer it third, making the Legends a more-satisfying long-long/short-short sequence. Nevertheless the death-singing bird was blackly luminous, reporting a barren landscape unchanged over many centuries, with eloquent solos from cor anglais and cello. In ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ he is called upon to kill the swan – okay, in terms of narration the ordering makes sense – although he doesn’t do so, the fowl spared to continue its lonely lament (already heard), and the music is remarkable for showing Sibelius’s skills of making so much from his material, creating an inhospitable place, suspenseful, with some striking orchestration; I’d not thought of it before, but as Oramo observed in an interview, Liszt is an influence. Finally ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’, urgent in tempo, the music buzzing with determination, his horse portrayed in the music, and crowned by celebratory flourishes as home is sighted – to complete a honed and vibrant rendition.
This programme’s third outing was also streamed to the World, extending the audience, not least for Brett Dean’s new-this-year Cello Concerto, written for Alban Gerhardt and premiered a few weeks ago in Sydney, David Robertson conducting. The soloist opens, fragile and whimsical, responded to by three piccolos, other (variegated) sounds are mysterious, the writing for cello deft and lyrical. The feeling that something is being kept under wraps is confirmed as the music grows in purpose while remaining tantalising, unexplained, in the manner of Dutilleux. Contrasts abound – tempo (including dangerously fast for all), disposition, dynamics, colour (the scoring, for diversity rather than bombast, includes Hammond organ, piano, harp and contrabass clarinet) – knitting together for a catastrophic climax worthy of Lutosławski, not the only time he is suggested here, from which the music emerges as shell-shocked, as if calling from the grave.
Dean’s Cello Concerto (it's as much one 'for orchestra') is a compelling thirty-minute ride of confrontation and camaraderie, a major addition to cellists’ repertoire, and given a gripping outing here, Gerhardt playing from memory and, galvanised by Oramo, the Berliners giving their all for an ‘old boy’, Dean a viola-player in the Philharmoniker (appointed by Karajan) from 1985 to 1999.
Whether we needed an encore (Dean’s Concerto was casting a long shadow) is debateable; nevertheless, Gerhardt offered a probing and patrician account of the ‘Prelude’ from J. S. Bach’s Suite in D, BWV1012.