It seems astonishing that Esa-Pekka Salonen is only now conducting his first full Sibelius cycle and it's definitely something of a coup for the Barbican to have bagged him and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for four concerts, juxtaposing works of Salonen himself, Steven Stucky and Kaija Saariho against Sibelius's seven symphonies. The first pair of concerts took place on Thursday and Friday, next Friday and Saturday sees the Barbican host the second pair.
One might have wondered where the name of the series, 'Sibelius Unbound' came from, it was clear though listening to these concerts: there is an unfettered feeling of freedom to Salonen's interpretations. The performance of Lemminkäinen's Return which kicked off the first concert was dynamic, driven and thrilling. His no-nonsense conducting style elicited some pretty impressive playing from the orchestra. As a start to the series it was arresting; as a statement of interpretative intent it was unequivocal.
The impulsiveness was there in the performance of the Second Symphony which formed the second half of the concert, the tempi were on the fast side and Salonen was never afraid to put his foot on the accelerator in several of the big build-ups. Although the wind players seemed a little shaky to start they soon settled, principal oboe Ariana Ghez in particular was outstanding. The brass sound was powerful and burnished while the strings sang out their long lines with lustrous tone and flexibility, the faster passages in the Vivacissimo (at a tempo properly verging on the edge of possibility) were despatched with thrilling virtuosity.
It was interesting to compare this performance with Mariss Jansons' at the proms a couple of months ago (the comparison inevitable perhaps since both conductors chose to perform Valse Triste as an encore). Where Jansons had controlled his forces with patience and a certain economy, Salonen's interpretation had its heart on its sleeve. In the programme he writes that 'in my mind, the ideal Sibelius performance should feel like the ice breaking in a great northern river in April: intense, beautiful, terrifying and ultimately inevitable.' Although some might prefer their Sibelius to retain an icy edge, this dethawed (and undoubtedly 'unbound') performance was thrilling.
Between the two Sibelius pieces at this first concert was Esa-Pekka Salonen's 2004 work, Wing on Wing. The title refers to a configuration of sails which Frank Gehry uses to describe a particular view of his new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Salonen explains that he's not trying to achieve a musical representation of that building but, using a selection of marine metaphors – the sea, the wind, fish – and the sampled voice of Gehry himself is creating a homage to the building and everyone whose effort went into its construction.
Inevitably some of the extra-musical associations of this homage to Gehry's architectural vision were lost in the slightly less edifying concrete-clad Barbican centre, though, and there was a lot going on in this substantial work that made me want to hear it again to gain a proper appreciation of Salonen's intentions. Composed for a large orchestra and two coloratura sopranos (who to create a variety of special effects appear throughout in different places in the hall), it's a highly imaginative work which really holds the attention. Salonen uses the orchestra to create some genuinely original and sometimes stunningly effective episodes. Particularly noteworthy was the way the insistent string figures building to a big climax with the brass at the end of the second section then disintegrated back into watery uncertainty, as well as the antiphonal use of the sopranos, Anu Komsi and Cynthia Sieden, who made a very decent job of their extremely taxing parts.
Of course, Salonen's own conducting was uniquely authoritative and his orchestra played with white hot intensity. The contemporary piece in the second concert, sandwiched between the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, was Steven Stucky's Radical Light (2006-2007), here receiving its European premiere. Commissioned by the LAPO (Stuckey is the orchestra's 'Consulting Composer for New Music') this was a very approachable work and played with all the same commitment and intensity.
As Stucky explains, the piece was originally composed to fit between the two Sibelius symphonies it was performed with here, a 'daunting' assignment. While it seeks to emulate the terse, four-movements-in-one form of the Seventh, the content of the piece is highly original, with a real sense of development from start to finish. Starting mysteriously it took us through several moments of considerable lyricism and passages of busy, angular writing to a highly theatrical end: unexpectedly it stops with a percussion blow which is left to sound, Salonen keeping players and audience rapt with his frozen final pose.
The two symphonies in this second concert, the fourth and seventh, were slightly less successful than the second had been on the previous evening. These two works show respectively Sibelius at his darkest and his most economical and formally succinct. Although in the fourth's opening movement the austere atmosphere was well achieved, the brass once again impressively imposing, Salonen seemed slightly less at ease; here the music does not have the same implicit forward momentum.
The brief second movement, however, was judged to perfection (helped once again by Ghez's oboe solo), the uneasy jollity always so close to turning into something more menacing. The Largo (unfortunately delayed by ill-advisedly admitted late-comers taking an age to find their places) was played with stern beauty but failed to quite plumb the emotional depths. In the finale, Salonen seemed slightly relieved at the lighter mood, his interpretation allowed to take flight in the less constricted atmosphere.
The same virtues were there in the Seventh Symphony, the final bars of which were played with intensity but elsewhere, despite once again very high quality playing from the orchestra, the performance didn't quite achieve the cumulative power and restrained intensity that others have produced. It was telling, I thought, that Salonen seemed relieved again to be able to let his hair down in the encore, an impulsive and visceral performance of Finlandia that brought the house down.
These two concerts gave us some idea of how Salonen's Sibelius is going to develop in the symphonies that are to come. The music-making is never less than exemplary and there's nothing perfunctory about these extremely well prepared and thought-out readings. Although Salonen seems more at home with the more direct works, having maybe not convinced entirely in the fourth and seventh, I have no doubt that his red-blooded approach will make for some genuinely exciting performances of the remaining symphonies. And with Karita Mattila and Ben Heppner appearing in the final two concerts' 'fillers', I can heartily recommend trying to catch at least one of the two remaining concerts.
By Hugo Shirley