Sibelius like no other – The Finnish Baroque Orchestra and Tomas Djupsjöbacka demonstrate the power of period instruments

The Finnish Baroque Orchestra, Tomas Djupsjöbacka and Antti Tikkanen at the Sibelius Hall. © Jari Kallio

In the course of all the years following the initial premiere performances, the Finnish orchestras have revisited pretty much everything ever written by Jean Sibelius to an astounding degree, from the core works to the forgotten ones, including earlier versions and, in the case of the myth know as the Eighth Symphony, even barely performable sketches.  

Within the context of this unparalleled tradition, it may come as a surprise that we had to wait until 2020 to hear a Finnish orchestra perform an all-Sibelius concert on period instruments. On Sunday, as a conclusion to the 2020 Lahti Sibelius Festival, the Finnish Baroque Orchestra and conductor Tomas Djupsjöbacka provided the Sibelius Hall audience with an intriguing selection of Sibelius’s music for string orchestra.

It may very well be, that precisely because the Finnish orchestras, with the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Lahti Symphony as the best-known examples, have demonstrated such enthusiasm in presenting the full scope of Sibelius’s output to an engaged public, there has been very little room in the market for period-instrument performances. 

With the Helsinki Philharmonic tradition stemming all the way from the premieres under Sibelius himself, complemented by the extensive survey of the composer’s œuvre, both in concert and on record, by the Lahti Symphony and Osmo Vänskä, the legacy of the Finnish master has often been considered thoroughly covered. 

Yet, as demonstrated by so many wonderful period-instrument performances, the sonic reality of the first half of the 20th century was radically different from contemporary orchestral sonorities. Hearing Debussy and Ravel performed by Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth or Elgar and Walton rediscovered with Gabrieli Consort & Players and Paul McCreesh really opens one’s ears to the original textures and timbres heard by the composers and their contemporaries. 

Of course, period instruments are just one level in a historically informed performance practice, which conveys scholar-critical score editions, aesthetics and tackling the myriad technical questions, to be joined in performance. Yet the aim is not to reproduce history, but to search the most suitable means to transform the notated music to sounding reality. 

In case of Sibelius, the solutions provided by period instruments to the problems of balance, articulation and texture have been little studied hitherto. In addition, the radically different sonorities with gut strings shed new light on Sibelius’s conception of harmony snd colour. 

Therefore, with the May 2019 performances of the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901-02/1903) by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Thierry Fischer as its sole predecessor, the chance to hear a period-instrument all-Sibelius concert was not to be missed at any cost! 

With five pieces string-orchestra pieces ranging from mid-1890s to late 1920s, Sibelius’s creative arch, with its distinctive periods, was well covered by the programme. While Sibelius’s smaller-scale works may not possess the originality and drive of the symphonies and tone-poems, they often provide extra insight to his musical development. And, most importantly, there are truly charming miniature gems among them. 

The three-movement Suite caractéristique, Op. 100 (1922) was one of the three short pieces first performed alongside the premiere of the Symphony No. 6 in D minor (1918-23) on 19 February 1923, with Sibelius conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. 

Like the symphony, the suite is one of the few pieces by Sibelius to feature the harp, providing extra colour and texture to the string orchestra writing. Based on a relatively straightforward fast-slow-fast scheme, with alluring thematic material, Suite caractéristique was an apt concert-opener.

From the first bar on, one was amazed by the colorful combination of clarity and warmth provided by the gut strings. With sublime interjections from the harp beautifully woven into the string texture, Djupsjöbacka and the FiBO provided the audience with a splendid sonic image. 

After finishing the first version of the Fifth Symphony(1914-15), Sibelius was planning a second violin concerto. While the idea was eventually abandoned, with most of the sketched material ending up into the score of the Sixth Symphony, Sibelius did write a suite for violin and piano in 1924-25, titled Cinq danses champêtres, Op. 106. 

Interestingly, this series of rustic tableaux, clad into various dance idioms, rooted in folk traditions, albeit in stylized, reimagined manner, yields to a brilliant synthesis of vivid narrative and concertante bravura. It may not rise to the level and scope of Berlioz’s Harold en Italie, Op. 16(1834), but within these Danses champêtres there is more than meets the eye. 

Perhaps their initial potential provided the impetus for violinist, conductor and composer Jaakko Kuusisto to adapt the original piano part for string orchestra. Be that as it may, the orchestral guise serves the music well indeed, resulting in a small gem of a score. 

The outer movements are both fast, with slow introductions, building up to lively pastoral imagery. The second and fourth movements, marked alla polacca and tempo di menuetto, are the most clear-cut dance pieces within the suite, whereas the centerpiece, tempo di moderato is the most dazzling one of the five. 

The third movement opens with a lean introduction, but is turned into wild dance, with brilliant energy and vehemence. With Antti Tikkanen as the formidable soloist, Cinq danses champêtres was given a powerhouse performance, with the FiBO and Djupsjöbacka joining the fun with astonishing vigor and musicianship.

A contrast in mood was provided in the guise of the touching Elegy from Sibelius’s incidental music to the play King Christian II (1898). Throughout his career, Sibelius wrote extensively for the theatre, channeling his apt sense of drama into wonderful musical scores, which he then reworked for concert suites. 

In Sibelius’s original theatre score, Elegy served as the overture to the play set in the 16th century Scandinavia. A mood-setter par excellence, the slowly unfolding musical lines of the Elegy were admirably performed by the FiBO strings with Djupsjöbacka. The ensuing silence in the hall spoke volumes more than roaring applauses. 

One of the most fascinating pieces among Sibelius’s œuvre for strings is, without question Rakastava (The Lover), Op. 14 (1894/1911). The three-movement piece was originally written for male chorus, but while in Paris, Sibelius reworked the score into a thrilling instrumental guise, featuring a string orchestra augmented with triangle and timpani. 

However, this 1911 Paris version was not published until 2017, for Sibelius carried out a series of revisions, finishing the final version in Ainola in 1912. The original arrangement was conceived in parallel with the proofreading for the Fourth Symphony (1910-11), which probably explains some of unusual aspects of the orchestration and harmony in Rakastava

The original choral setting is extensively reworked, and had all knowledge of Rakastava’s origins faded outside living memory, one would probably assume that the score was originally written for strings. 

There is again a Fast-slow-fast scheme to be found in the score, but the contrast between movements are quite sublime. In addition, the movements are further divided into subsections, resulting in captivating narrative. 

Sibelius’s use of percussion is exemplary. In the first movement, there is that magical moment with solo cello line supported by timpani pedal point, echoing the realm of shadows from where the Fourth Symphony emerged. In the contrasting second movement, the sublime string textures are set alight with gentle triangle pulse, yielding to a glimmering effect.

The closing movement features a solo violin line zooming out from the string fabric. Both timpani and triangle appear too, thus rounding off the scoring with a sense of closure. 

The FiBO and Djupsjöbacka performance was simply extraordinary, with the music clad in wondrous spectrum of colour. A study of light and shadow, the Paris version of Rakastava was a discovery indeed. 

FiBO and Tomas Djupsjöbacka performing Sibelius. © Jari Kallio

Closing the one-hour programme, Antti Tikkanen returned the stage to perform the solo part in the Suite for Violin and String Orchestra, JS 185 (1929). Although completed, the piece was rejected by the publisher, thus leading Sibelius to mark his manuscript score with a note ”to be reworked, not allowed for publication”. 

As it happened, Sibelius never returned to the score, and the manuscript lingered unperformed for more than sixty years, until John Storgårds, the Lahti Symphony and Osmo Vänskä finally premiered it in December 1990. 

Although the premiere did receive extensive coverage in the media, one must ask, to which degree it was all about the music itself. A discovery of a hitherto unknown late work  by an important composer is of course a thrill, but that should not obscure the fact that the Suite is just another pièce d’occasion, not a second violin concerto. 

Having said this, I must say that I did enjoy hearing the Suite a lot on Sunday, which has not always been the case with it. But clad in period guise, and performed with genuine enthusiasm, the little Suite came off in the most charming way imaginable. 

The three character movements, Country-scenery, Evening in Spiring and In the Summer are, in fact, quite charming in their rustic appeal, especially in lively performance like the one by Tikkanen, FiBO and Djupsjöbacka. Indeed the most rewarding of performances are those that make the listener question a previous verdict, as was the case with this one. 

One of the most thrilling Sibelius events ever, the Sunday noon concert was nothing short of revelation. For this was Sibelius like no other, translucent and clad in raiments of astounding colour spectrum. Hopefully there is more to come in a not-too-distant future.  

Finnish Baroque Orchestra

Tomas Djupsjöbacka, conductor

Antti Tikkanen, violin

Jean Sibelius: Suite caractéristique, Op. 100 (1922) for string orchestra and harp

Jean Sibelius: Cinq danses champêtres, Op. 106 (1924-25), arranged for violin and string orchestra by Jaakko Kuusisto

Jean Sibelius: Elegy from King Christian II, Op. 27 (1898)

Jean Sibelius: Rakastava (The Lover), Op. 14 (1894/1911) for string orchestra, triangle and timpani

Jean Sibelius: Suite for Violin and String Orchestra, JS 185 (1929)

Sibelius Festival 2020, Sibelius Hall, Lahti

Sunday 18 September 2020, 11.30 am

© Jari Kallio

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