Tonight’s concert is a bit of a mix and match, yet works as a whole. There are two pieces by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. First, we have the defiantly patriotic tone poem, Finlandia, which was the last piece in a series of seven tableaux championing the Press Pension Fund. It is famous for its March-like opening, but even more so for its hymn-like chorale, first heard on winds, and which later had words associated with it (the tune also appears as a hymn tune too). The brass are to the fore much of the time, and tonight they don’t disappoint.
The other Sibelius work, which starts the second half of the concert, is his sea-inspired The Oceanides, a work commissioned by an American arts patron, and first performed in Connectitut in 1914: it was an instant success. The evocation of the sea is palpable, the orchestra building up from its watery depths to an enormous climax, then receding to evoke the sea’s vastness.
Between these two, comes five songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, songs based around German folk literature encompassing nature, folklore and tales of soldiers. However, there is macabre here too, and Mahler often referred to these seemingly simple songs in later symphonies; they also pre-figure music by Berg. All are performed brilliantly by baritone Roderick Williams. He brings real humanity and his knowledge of Mahler, as well as his flexible voice—at times jolly, then honeyed-toned with pathos. He has us is the palm of his hand: brilliant!
The concert ends with Beethoven’s First Symphony. This is a work breaking all the traditions of the Viennese symphonic tradition, and is a masterpiece. Beethoven breaks the rules from bar one, starting in the subdominant (wrong key) before steering us to the home key of C major; it must have sounded strange to his contemporaries.
The middle two movements are pretty straightforward, although the minuet is steering towards a scherzo feel. The last movement is ingenious as he plays with the listeners’ expectations with the opening broken scale idea. Again, pushing the received boundaries. The strings of the RSNO are really terrific here, and there’s a real feeling of excitement in their playing. Not a bad piece of programming.