A most fascinating early 20th century programme was presented by the London Symphony Orchestra with their music director Sir Simon Rattle on Thursday evening at the Barbican Centre.
Three composers, Leoš Janáček, Karol Szymanowski and Jean Sibelius, each nothing less than a national icon, were featured, with three riveting works, all written within a decade from each other.
In addition to their chronology, there are ever so intersing links to be found between the three works performed. Although quite different from each other on the surface, Janáček’s Sinfonietta (1926), Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1916) and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 (1915-19) all venture into the outskirts of tonality, with harmonic language uprooted in East European folk tradition as well as the increasingly chromatic zeitgeist of the era.
Janáček’s Sinfonietta belongs to that marvelous family of late works, considered by many as the most inspiring ones the composer ever wrote. Janáček composed relatively few orchestra works, among which the Sinfonietta is his most symphonic one.
Originally titled as a Military Sinfonietta, the piece was written in 1926 within less than three weeks as a result of a creative burst originated in a commission to write fanfares for the Sokol Festival.
Although the festival fanfares themselves did not become a part of the Sinfonietta, they led Janáček to sketch some new ones on the very same score sheets. These were the basis of the first movement, scored for brass and percussion alone.
Throughout the Sinfonietta, Janáček uses a brass band of nine trumpets, two tenor horns and two bass trombones to augment a large symphony orchestra. In this respect, the title refers not to the size of orchestral forces embodied, but rather to the light and festive spirit of the Sinfonietta.
Cast in five movements, there is a vague program by Janáček linking each movement to a specific time and place in the Czech history. This program, however, seems to be devised after the actual composition of the Sinfonietta, for the premiere performance in Prague.
Following the opening fanfare, a more lyrical second movement ensues. The third movement, in its turn, contrasts soft string passages with prominent brass writing. There is a sense of drama involved, as the music gains momentum.
The spirited fourth movement paves the way for a celebratory finale, which comes back to the musical material of the opening. With recurring fanfares the Sinfonietta is brought to its jubilant closure.
Typically for Janáček, each movement is worked out of brief motives, through repetition and abrupt contrasts. There is no development in the traditional sense. Rather, there are contrasting textures and rhythmic figures creating the necessary drama and tension.
Within the Janáček realm, Rattle and the LSO embraced the crisp harmonies, sharp rhythms and motivic organization with an idiomatic touch and spirit, resulting in a most uplifting performance.
Karol Szymanowski wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 while visiting Ukraine in 1916. The concerto is scored for large orchestra with triple winds, two keyboards (a piano and a celesta), two harps and a variety of percussion. Written in one continuous, twenty-five-minute movement, the concerto shuns traditional forms, favoring a more fantasy-like approach.
In the lack of a better word, the concerto may be superficially described as impressionistic, with its veiled harmonic colours and detailed orchestration. For Szymanowski, the concerto was essentially a symphonic work with solo violin. A concept he went to study further with his Fourth Symphony (1932) for piano and orchestra.
The concerto opens with a piano and woodwind figure, accompanied by tremolo strings. Developed by the full orchestra, the introduction paves way for the first entry of the solo violin. Soaring in its high registers, the violin starts its journey through the dream-like orchestral soundscape.
With the opening motive recurring, the concerto travels through a thrilling sequence of harmonies and orchestral textures before arriving on a fascinating cadenza, written by Szymanowski’s friend and compatriot, the violinist Paul Kochanski.
The cadenza leads to a concluding allegro passage, where the music gradually dissolves back into the silence whence it first emerged.
Joined by the marvellous Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, the LSO gave a spectacular performance of the Szymanowski concerto under Rattle. There was a wealth of orchestral detail within a most elaborate sense of continuity of form. The full dynamic scale was embraced with utmost expression.
Jansen’s performance of the solo part was absolutely admirable, in perfect accord with the subtle emotional and textural nuances inherent in the music. Excellently balanced by Rattle, the orchestra was an ideal partner to Jansen. A fabulous performance of one of the greatest violin concertos of the first part of the 20th century.
Sibelius completed the first version of his Fifth Symphony in the fall of 1915 for his 50th birthday celebrations with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Yet, in its original version, the symphony was very different from the final one we’ve all come to know and love.
In its original guise, the symphony was in four separate movements, with austere textures and quirky harmonies bearing close relationship to the Fourth Symphony (1910-11). Even though the premiere performance was enthusiastically received, Sibelius was unsatisfied with the work, and embarked upon a four-year process of revisions.
The second version was premiered the following year in Turku. Not much is known of this intermediate version, since only a double bass part survives. However, it can be deduced, that the unique fusion of opening movement and scherzo was already conceived for the 1916 version.
Still, it took Sibelius another three years before the Fifth Symphony was in its finished form. In the meantime, his native Finland had gone through a tumultuous period of gaining independence from Soviet Russia followed by a brief, but gruesome civil war.
In November 1919, the final version of the Fifth Symphony was premiered in Helsinki, with Sibelius conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. In the course of the revision process, the symphony had grown more organic in its development of thematic material, resulting in a revolutionary concept of form and texture.
The symphony opens with a horn call over a timpani roll, answered by a three-note flute melody. From this most concentrated musical material, Sibelius starts to build his vast symphonic arc for the movement. Along the way, the woodwind lines grow gradually more more and more complex. The strings play prolonged tremolo passages with sublime tempo modulations. The textures are often sparse, demanding crystal-clear clarity of articulation.
Gradually, the musical tension becomes more and more intense, until the opening motive bursts out in its cathartic splendour. Yet, this is not the end, but a bridge, magically transforming the movement into a vigorous scherzo.
The intense scherzo, with its delicately scored passages for winds and strings builds ever towards its final climax with brass and timpani punctuating the string and wind textures, bringing the movement to its breathtaking conclusion.
The sonic architecture of the opening movement was beautifully shaped by Rattle, with each detail perfectly realized by the orchestra. As seasoned Sibelians, the LSO players grasped the unique idiom of the Fifth Symphony with complete understanding of form and detail, resulting in one of the most intense and beautiful accounts of the opening movement I’ve ever encountered.
The second movement, andante mosso, quasi allegretto, is a fascinatingly Haydnesque affair, a genuine Andante, with light, transparent textures throughout. Yet, it is no mere interlude, as there is a splendid interplay of shade and light, within a perfectly shaped form.
Again, the LSO and Rattle were absolutely spot on with their choices of tempi and impeccable sense of balance. This was Sibelius in its purest form.
The Finale opens with a prolonged introduction full of fast writing for strings and winds. Finally the horns bring forth the rocking theme, joined by woodwinds with their counter-melody, an unsurpassed moment of sublime majesty in all music.
Contrasting middle section follows, with its brilliant development of the musical material. Again, the music starts to build upon a climax. The horn theme returns, and the music resolves into an impassioned statement for full orchestra, culminating into six isolated tutti chords, bringing the symphony into its majestic end.
The Finale was an excellent showcase for the LSO. With admirable dexterity, rhythmic accuracy and sonic purity, they made Sibelius proud. Again, Rattle had a perfect sense of pacing and balancing the music in order to make the harmonies and textures really stand out with their full inventive genius. A splendid ending for a riveting evening at the Barbican.
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Janine Jansen, violin
Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta (1926)
Karol Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35 (1916)
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat Major, Op. 82 (1915-19)
Barbican Centre, London
Wednesday 19 Septemper, 7.30 pm
c Jari Kallio