London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vanska, Royal Festival Hall, London

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For a moment or two it seemed to be Wagner emerging from the chord of E-flat just as he did in Das Rheingold at the start of The Ring.

But the chivalrous brassy theme dissipated into a restless, febrile, ostinato and suddenly another equally individual voice was established. So began Osmo Vanska and the London Philharmonic’s Sibelius series “Miraculous Logic” at the South Bank.



And because it began more or less at the beginning with an early and rarely heard tone poem The Wood Nymph we were able to hear just how quickly and readily Sibelius became Sibelius. The wind-swept heart of this compelling opener was full of characteristic fingerprints – a wild ride, piccolo topped and punctuated by fractured brass fanfares. Vanska rejoiced in its nervous energy driving it hard and roughly. But then came an amazing Sibelian hiatus – a moment of suspended silence as if someone had hit the pause button on the CD player. When Sibelius stops its like nature stops; it’s sudden and inexplicable. What followed – a beautiful cello lament offset with spectral pizzicati – was even stranger, an original voice with its own distinct timbre. Small wonder the surging splendour of the coda sounded so self-assertive.



Sibelius was a considerable violinist and his Six Humoresques for violin and orchestra found a way of making the instrument speak that was entirely his own. Their spirit is that of a folksy fiddler in touch with the mystical and Henning Kraggerud played them with great accomplishment and a wonderful sense of the unexpected. There was a natural rapport between him and Vanska, a knowing capriciousness in the exchange of wry smiles. And there was plenty to smile about: who but Sibelius could have come up with the jaunty diversion which has our fiddler whistling nonchalantly in harmonics. The end was pure Sibelian throw-away, a wisp of sound quickly vaporising. I’ve finished so I’ll stop.



The foundation of this series is, of course, the seven symphonies in more or less chronological order and Vanska began that journey here with the most desolate sound in the world – the distant rumble of timpani and hazy clarinet (beautifully taken by Robert Hill) which opens the First Symphony. Vanska’s way with it was nervy and volatile, the first movement anxious and impulsive with any hint of Tchaikovskian amplitude knocked out of the second subject and even the great theme of the finale browbeaten and scarred by the big chill. It promises to be a compelling odyssey.

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