Perennially racked with terrors which he drowned in alcohol, Sibelius’s first ambition was to be a violinist, but nerves got the better of him.
Even as a composer-conductor he was vulnerable: ‘When I am standing in front of a grand orchestra and have drunk a half-bottle of champagne, then I conduct like a young god. Otherwise I am nervous and tremble,’ he wrote.
The gestation of his violin concerto was similarly bedevilled. He wrote it for the great German violinist Willy Burmester, but an ultimatum from the bank manager made Sibelius programme it prematurely; Burmester not being free, it was given to another soloist whose performance was a disaster.
Sibelius withdrew it, spent two years on a rewrite, and re-programmed it on yet another date when Burmester wasn’t free: terminally offended, Burmester never did play it.
Having jointly recorded both versions of this work, the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and the Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska were uniquely well placed to deliver this performance of the second. Vanska had the violins of the London Symphony Orchestra playing their opening susurration on the outer edge of audibility, while Kavakos made his entry with a notably spacious and singing tone.
The little bursts of solo pyrotechnics punctuating the first movement were exquisitely done, and in the elegiac Adagio his sound was compelling even when it sank to a whisper. The final Allegro saw orchestra and soloist achieving an ideal synergy, with Kavakos’s sound shining brightly against the bass-heavy backdrop; one could not have wished for a clearer demonstration that this work stands in the grand tradition of Brahms and Tchaikovsky.
The rest of this concert consisted of Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, with Vanska’s accounts having a visionary clarity. The ethereal polyphony with which the Sixth begins was gracefully sculpted, and the medieval modal scale on which that symphony was based was used to create an atmosphere of enchantment; Sibelius’s label for one of the stormy episodes was ‘the pine tree spirit and the wind’, and that was exactly how the music came across.
Both these works have a valetudinary quality, and Vanska honoured this with such grave authority that one really could feel, as the massive final phrase of the Seventh sounded, that this was the end for Sibelius, and that his ensuing thirty-year creative silence was the necessary conclusion to the story.