A glory of Glasgow's past was the 1992 cycle of Sibelius symphonies given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under their Finnish chief conductor Osmo Vanska. Since then, he has gone to work in America and the orchestra's home, the Glasgow City Halls, has been magnificently refurbished. Now a Russian, Ilan Volkov, is in charge, and offering us another Sibelius-fest.
In his cycle, Vanska had turned the orchestra into a lithe, limpid ensemble, eager, vital, spare of tone. He was back for one of the concerts in the new series. It needed a Finn, for the immense symphonic poem Kullervo, written when Sibelius was in his twenties, contains long vocal and choral sections in Finnish. Naturally, the singers were imported: Raimo Laukka was a baritone with conviction and gravitas, Paivi Nisula a dramatic, spacious soprano. The YL Helsinki Male Voice Choir sang without scores. This was the real thing.
You could see why this piece made such a stir when it came out in 1892. The young composer, still an unreconstructed nationalist, imitates traditional chant rhythms, writes folksy melodies, perseveres with repeated rhythmic tics. And the dance tunes and primitivism are so earnest and angry, so chillingly sincere. On top of it all, there are moments of emotion for violins, brass splendour, breathless pauses, and blockbuster climaxes that echo the Viennese tradition (Sibelius was studying in Vienna at the time).
It comes off because he is so endlessly inventive, so full of musical ideas. If you know his later works, Kullervo doesn't sound like Sibelius, but it doesn't really sound like anybody. It was a truly original piece in a style that had no future.
By the time of the Third Symphony, the composer had learnt economy and orchestral voicing. The miracle of the new City Halls was revealed here. The textures were so clear you could almost transcribe the music from hearing it; the strings danced, the wind glowed, the brass caught fire. It's unusual to hear precisely the middle of the orchestral sound, but you could discern bassoon, horn, viola as colours amid the harmony.
Vanska was laconic, witty and elastic, and the symphony acquired a sort of gaiety. No angry seriousness here; this was the right orchestra, the right conductor and, for once, the right concert hall.Reuse content