Salonen/ LA Philharmonic, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Sibelius was most certainly "Unbound", if the first in Esa-Pekka Salonen's four-concert cycle of the symphonies was anything to go by. Indeed, the gathering energy and momentum of "Lemminkainen's Return" from Sibelius's Four Legends was such that it suggested a kind of resurgence or even rebirth. It's been a few years since I heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic live and their playing seems to have hit something of an all-time high, with rhythmic virility a clarifying feature of every department. This Sibelius rocked.

The shiny sail-like configuration of architect Frank Gehry's beautiful Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA was the inspiration behind Salonen's piece Wing on Wing (2004). I can see why Salonen chose to include it as an adjunct to his first Sibelius cycle. Metaphors of water and wind reconcile a Californian extravagance to a Scandinavian austerity – and as the good ship Disney sets sail, the animation of texture and ideas is appropriately fanciful. The exceptionally wide sonic range is exemplified by the human and mechanical elements flanking the orchestra: a pair of coloratura sopranos (Anu Komsi and Cyndia Sieden), accompanied by the lowest-sounding woodwinds, the contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet, the latter sinking so low as to be almost a vibration.

The sopranos' wordless vocalises serve as siren songs to our imagination, with the electronic sampling of a Californian fish – the plainfin midshipman – lending suspicion that they might even be little mermaids in disguise. Except that it's not just their vocal cords but their feet that are exercised here as Salonen consigns them to various parts of the hall.

The patriotic rallying call of the 2nd Symphony finally launched the cycle, horns peeping over the horizon to breathe the fresh air of Salonen's bracing account. The gathering of the first movement's seemingly disparate thematic cells into the long sonorously evolving line at the climax of the development was as accomplished as I've ever heard. As a Finn, Salonen understands the sound of silence, breathing through it, filling it, to awesome effect in the elemental second movement. The final victory was truly earned, and far from eliciting our cheers with its grandstanding, simply glowed with pride.

Sibelius Unbound runs to 2 December (020-7638 8891)

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