Friday 23 February 2018

Review: Shimmering, and pulsating, a fitting tribute

Classical: Helsinki Philharmonic, National Concert Hall

The sesquicentenary of Sibelius's birth was celebrated. Stock photo.
The sesquicentenary of Sibelius's birth was celebrated. Stock photo.

Pat O'Kelly

With a Sibelius programme under Finnish music director John Storgards, the Nordic focus of the NCH's current International Series ends with a visit by the Helsinki Philharmonic.

The evening commemorates the sesquicentenary of Sibelius's birth on December 8 and, in a way, is a retrospective of his orchestral output with the tone poem En Saga; Violin Concerto and last Symphony.

As both En Saga and the 7th Symphony have become relative rarities on our concert menus, their inclusion is most welcome especially with the authentic air the visitors breathe into their compatriot's music.

The Finns' En Saga shows the piece anticipating Stravinsky as well as recalling Liszt and Wagner. Each of the Philharmonic's departments has particular strengths not least the variety of its string tone, depth of its brass and pliable nature of its woodwind.

In the enigmatic single-movement 7th Symphony, Maestro Storgards appears to be viewing the piece as a summation of all that has gone before. Solemnly processional, majestic with occasional touches of Elgarian sweep and quietly reflective, this is Sibelius coming full circle.

Strings shimmer; brass is solidly pungent and the Helsinki woodwind dance playfully with mellow clarinets, supple oboes and floated flutes.

The concerto brings the NCH debut of US-born Christel Lee. Recent winner of the International Sibelius Violin Competition, she is expressive and dramatic with her intonation consistently clean. Her fiendish cadenzas may be careful but they are pulsating.

Later she leaps the hurdles of Sibelius's Finale with panache while Storgards ensures the orchestra never clouds her glistening clarity.

Besides, there is a wonderful sense of togetherness in the performance with once gain radiant strings, ceremonial brass pageantry and almost medieval woodwind chant. A fitting tribute to a singular composer.

Irish Independent

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