TThe BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion days are usually devoted to contemporary music, but the first of this season’s events at the Barbican focused on a composer who died 65 years ago and had actually stopped writing music 30 years before that. Sibelius’ stature among the greatest composers of the 20th century rests primarily on his symphonies, but these four concerts explored the narratives behind his tone poems and songs.
The two programs given by the BBCSO under its chief conductor Sakari Oramo gave the weight of the day, but there were also other contributions. Some of Sibelius’s solo songs, all settings in Swedish (the composer’s first language) by Finland’s national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, were performed by students from the Guildhall School alongside melodramas from different ends of his composing career, 1893 Nights of Jealousy, for reciter, soprano and piano trio , and A Lonely Ski Trail, from 1925, with piano accompaniment. And later the BBC Singers, conducted by Owain Parkoffered a selection of unaccompanied choral settings by Sibelius and also by his students Leevi Madetoja and Toivo Kuula.
Oramo’s performances were interwoven with narratives from the actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, in which he outlined the background of each of the works and read relevant extracts from their literary sources. Some of Sibelius’ best-known tone poems, such as En Saga and Tapiola, were of course included, along with pieces far less often heard, such as The Bard, enigmatic and introspective, and Night Ride and Sunrise, whose final pages have been given a golden glow by the BBCSO. In some of these works, too, the distinction between what is a tone poem and what might be considered a symphony becomes fine – Pohjola’s Daughter, magnificently tight and focused here, has many symphonic characteristics, while Tapiola, its massive climax hair-raising . alive under Oramo, clearly belongs in the same world as the sixth and seventh symphonies.
There were also songs in the BBCSO’s second concert, orchestral versions of The Echo Nymph, from Sibelius’s Op 72 and Sunrise from his Op 32 set, sung with relaxed familiarity by the soprano Come on. But it was Komsi’s construction of Luonnotar, the setting for a creation myth Kalevala it is one of Sibelius’ greatest achievements, it was on a whole other level. It became an experience of increasing operatic intensity, which was enhanced by Oramo’s insistence that every detail of the orchestral writing was also equally alive. But then the standard of performance had been consistently high throughout; this was truly one of those special immersion days.