Cbso/Oramo | Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

It seems appropriate that, a year into his music directorship of Birmingham's flagship orchestra, Sakari Oramo should have his word on Sibelius. Other Finns - Salonen, Saraste and, most recently, Osmo Vanska with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra - have had their say on Tapiola, Tuonela and the symphonies. Others, too, have made their input - notably Tortelier and Rattle, who made Sibelius one of his calling cards with the CBSO.

Oramo has already shown he is not afraid of big-boned Sibelius: in Kullervo last season he made an acoustic marvel out of a rather leviathan late-romantic score. Yet the thrill of hearing the CBSO's Sibelius Second Symphony at the opening of Oramo's new Prokofiev-Sibelius series was the clarity with which Oramo redefined some of the "big" moments and the absence of bombast or sloppy sentiment.

Oramo doesn't wallow in his Sibelius, as we sometimes love to. More than once the clean lines sounded like straight Beethoven; better still, it seemed utterly right. If Sibelius's symphonies tend to divide down the middle, with weighty Sargent-like readings of 1, 2 and 5 contrasted with the terse, almost secretive compaction of 4, 6 and 7 (and with 3 having a foot in both camps), Oramo's beautifully shaped reading of No 2 bridged this gap.

He opted not to dwell, either languidly or ominously, on the long span of the pizzicato opening to the Andante, but moved it on; yet it lost none of its emotional impact. The string playing (especially, as so often with the CBSO, the lower strings) hit another high.

Oramo is also intelligently showcasing four of his more recent compatriots amid the Prokofiev-Sibelius cycle. In the opening event it was Kaija Saariaho's large orchestra piece Du Crystal, while in Wednesday's second concert it was the turn of Joonas Kokkonen (1921-96).

Kokkonen's powerful, varied interludes from the First Act, and their importance to the work's symphonic argument and dramatic impact, put it in the category of the three Ps - Parsifal, Pelleas and Palestrina. The invaluable CBSO programme notes on the composer's symphonic career were by another composer and opera writer, Jouni Kaipanen, whose Sisyphus Dreams - an intermezzo, as it were, composed amid a series of rather prodigious larger works - features in Oramo's third concert. The final Finnish work will be Rautavaara's part-carefree, part mysteriously evocative Isle of Bliss.

If the Rautavaara ends with an evocation of rosy-fingered dawn, Saariaho's Du Crystal culminates with the dawn of a new piece: the evocative solo cello trill played by Ulrich Heinen. It forms the opening of its sister piece, ...a la fumée. Saariaho's piece is a great structured soundwash. She gladly welcomes the influence of Ligeti and Tristan Murail, and in his lucid short introduction Oramo himself characterised Du Crystal as "like light in crystal". Unfortunately, despite splendid sectional business, the overall effect struck me as oddly opaque. Here and there, there was a luminous moment such as the patter of three cavorting piccolos and the subtle, alluring penetration of the lower textures by contra bassoon (Margaret Cookhorn). But otherwise, Saariaho's self-admittedly "synthesiser-like" sound seemed to oscillate between the vastness of landscape and the merely big.

Not so Prokofiev's scintillating violin concertos, composed 20 years apart, at either end of the composer's sojourn abroad. Yet this was no occasion for showing off: Vadim Repin kept things reined in even in the wonderful cantilena to No 2, heralded by string pizzicato and the pecking clarinets of Colin Parr and Mark Simmons. Taking his cue from Oramo, Repin played his Prokofiev like Mozart, and without superfluous sweetness. It felt like like calm after a rather rocky Baltic crossing.