Concert Review: A rare burst of sunrise
Tuesday 02 December 1997
Barbican Hall, London
This country has always been fairly loyal to Sibelius, if by "Sibelius" you meant a few of the symphonies and one or two tone poems. Things have changed. One expects to see the Barbican filled to capacity for a star soloist in the Violin Concerto. But to see an audience of virtually the same size for two such outlandish rarities as Night Ride and Sunrise and the youthful Kullervo symphony - that was surprising.
Why is Night Ride and Sunrise heard so rarely? It's a glorious work, a repeated springing rhythm gallops through a haunted forest-scape (superbly creepy scoring), and then comes the dawn - weird flickers of light at first, then the full solar warmth. But it's terribly hard to bring off. The repeated rhythms can easily blur and congeal, and the sunrise takes careful engineering. On Sunday, Colin Davis and the LSO were gripping enough in the first part; the very end was stirring; but the sunrise itself - brass hymns and woodwind birdsong - fell rather flat. Both sections of the orchestra should be sent to winter in Helsinki - that would teach them to be glib about sunrises.
Kullervo, on the other hand, was an unqualified triumph. This is very young Sibelius, finding his feet in a huge choral symphony. There are places where inspiration and craft both sag a little. But, as Davis and the LSO showed, if you understand the big ideas, the smaller details fall into place. This was a truly epic performance, and if the Kullervo of legend is a rather pitiable hero, Sibelius's version of his death is proud and uplifting. Most remarkable in this performance was the third movement, "Kullervo and his Sister": a driving 5/4 choral narrative, alternating with the raw drama of the music for the two soloists. It is recognisably Sibelius - just about - but a Sibelius with affinities to Mussorgsky or Janacek. Katarina Dalayman and Raimo Luakka brought operatic immediacy to the solos; the Helsinki University Chorus were just glorious: articulation, tone, conviction - everything.
Anne-Sophie Mutter's performance of the Violin Concerto on Wednesday was dramatic too. Enjoyable? Only if you enjoy being grabbed by the lapels, pushed into a corner and told to listen or else. Even her thin, vibrato- less tone at the start was of the kind that penetrates over long distances. Then the vibrato came on full, the muscles flexed, and Mutter went for the veloce semiquavers like a predator for its prey. Her playing in the finale was so ferocious, her phrasing and articulation so laser-like, that at the end it would have been no surprise to smell burning catgut. Of course, better this than a routine performance - and there are quite enough of those today; but better still an interpretation with tenderness as well as power, with subtle penetration instead of terrifying intellectual vivisection.
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