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John Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic open the Sibelius anniversary year

As an appropriate conclusion to his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, will perform a complete cycle of the symphonies throughout 2015. This evening’s program featured Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, along with works from Stravinsky and Martinsson.

The Finnish musical world will be celebrating Sibelius in many ways in 2015, and performances of his symphonies will feature prominently in the schedules of most of the major Finnish orchestras.

Although originally inspired by an essay about bees, Stravinsky nevertheless considered his Scherzo Fantastique as absolute music. Despite this claim, it is easy for the listener to hear the composer’s original inspiration: « buzzing » muted trills on strings, angular motivic material, piquant orchestration.

Next on the program was the song cycle Ich denke Dein… by the Swedish composer . The opening tutti immediately conjured up images of Mahler, with the exception of Martinsson’s use of certain dissonances. Martinsson’s harmonic language was highly accessible and at times very beautiful; his orchestration polished but uncomplicated. Martinsson’s music did at times suggest darker or more unsettling territory, but never strayed far away from comfort.

The music placed largely conventional demands on the soloist. Soprano ’s crystalline tone and tasteful restraint were appropriate for the aesthetic of this piece. While this work provided minimal challenges to the listener, it was enjoyable and beautiful music nevertheless. Special mention goes to concertmaster Pekka Kauppinen and principal cellist Tomas Núñez-Garcés for their extended solos.

Storgårds’ recent recording of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 with the BBC Philharmonic might just be one of the most exciting renditions of this work ever committed to disc. Accordingly, expectations were high for this evening’s performance. Despite matching their British counterparts in terms of energy and sweep, the Helsinki players did not quite deliver the same level of sheer visceral energy.

Nevertheless, this evening’s performance was excellent. Storgårds’ shaping of the latent tension in the first movement’s meandering development section was superb, along with his muscular and imposing coda. Low brass and timpani, critical for a successful performance of this work, were appropriately rock-solid and full-blooded. Storgårds gave Sibelius’ long melodies enough space to soar and blossom, but without sentimental excess. If performances of this caliber is how the Helsinki Philharmonic plans to celebrate the Sibelius anniversary year, then there are many more treats to look forward to.

© Heikki Tuuli