· Karelia Suite, Op.11
· Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47: 1st movement – Allegro moderato
· Kuolema, Op.44
o Valse triste
o Scene with Cranes
· Orchestral songs
o ‘Illalle’ (“To Evening”), Op.17 No. 6
o ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote’ (“The girl returned from meeting her lover”), Op.37 No. 5
o ‘Svarta rosor’ (“Black Roses”), Op.36 No. 1
o ‘Se’n har jag ej frågat mera’ (“Then I questioned no further”), Op.17 No. 1
· trad. Folk tune
· Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Whitney Leigh Sloan, soprano
Kokopelli and Òran Choirs
Richard Eaton Singers
Conducted by Alexander Prior
Thursday, February 28th, 2019
- Karelia Suite, Op.11
- Kuolema, Op.44 No. 2: Scene with Cranes
- Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Conducted by Alexander Prior
Friday March 1st, 2019
After a stirring opening concert on Friday February 22nd (repeated the following evening), the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival continued with another related pair of concerts on Thursday February 28 and on St. David’s Day (Wales’ national day, duly noted by conductor Alexander Prior in his opening remarks), Friday March 1.
One of the most notable elements of the two concerts was the contrast in audiences (relatively large for both evenings). The first, longer, concert, billed in the orchestra’s Lighter Classics series, started later (8 pm), and went on considerably longer. Its audience was older, and considerably noisier, more of which later on. Friday’s concert started earlier (7.30 pm), was shorter (around an hour with no intermission), with a much younger audience, one of the most attentive (and quiet) that I have experienced in the Winspear.
Now, Friday’s tickets were commendably cheap (the most expensive was $35), and there was the added bonus of a free drink with the ticket, as well as a Scotch tasting courtesy of Sherbrook Liquor (which, if you haven’t discovered it, is the place in Edmonton to buy craft beer, and has permanent discounts for seniors – and, no, I wasn’t paid for this endorsement!). Nonetheless, this new formula is clearly working – the ESO is drawing in a much younger audience, quite a few of whom will have been at their first ESO concert, so long may it continue.
The Lighter Classics concert reminded me of those late Victorian concert programs that had a little bit of everything, here including just the first movement of the Violin Concerto. This is a practice I personally dislike, even if the opening movement of the Sibelius is so wide-ranging it almost stands on its own. But only almost, and Sibelius didn’t write it to played on its own. That movement is about 17 minutes long – the other two combined are only about 15, so why not just play the whole thing?
One the other hand, the inclusion of four of Sibelius’ songs was an unexpected piece of programming. Op.17 No.1 was orchestrated by Sibelius himself (in 1903), but Op.35 No.5 and the famous ‘Black Roses’ (Op.36, No.1) had been, we were told, especially orchestrated for this concert by John Estacio. Very well orchestrated they were, too, with a sympathetic sense of colour and sweep, and unassumingly true to the Sibelius idiom. The little touch of harp and cymbals in the otherwise string orchestration of ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote’, for example, was just right. The final song in the set (Op.17, No.1) wasn’t orchestrated by Sibelius, so I presume this was an Estacio orchestration, too.
What gorgeous songs they are! He is one of the best of the northern song writers, emotionally involved in the texts, veering more to the dramatic art song than lieder, and perhaps it is only the language demands (Swedish or Finnish) that prevents them being heard more often.
The young Edmonton soprano Whitney Leigh Sloan, who continues both to develop and to impress, started off a little subdued, but then really began to express the drama in the songs – she has an enviable range, full at the top when she opens out, and rich at the bottom – both exemplified in Op.37 No.5. She’s also understands how to phrase vocal lines that more follow patterns of speech, as here (making me wonder when she might tackle Janáček).
These attractive performances made me want more, and rather regret that Sibelius’s masterpiece in the genre, Luonnotar, wasn’t included in the festival. Thursday’s concert did, though, end with a very effective well-kept secret. Prior’s interpretation of Finlandia was as expected – strong, clear lines, a concentration on colour, clarity, and detail, and an orchestral placement that emphasized those virtues, with the horns and brass at opposite sides of the stage, playing across to each other, and the percussion centre back.
However, towards the end of the piece, in came from the back of the auditorium a large chorus, who stood in the aisles to join in – in Finnish and from memory – for the choral version of what is Finland’s national music. It was a rousing way to end the concert, and must have produced a lump in the throat and tears in the eyes for any Finn in the audience.
Also very welcome was a rare appearance of a very late Sibelius work, the Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117. This was Sibelius’ last orchestral work, and was requested by his American publisher. When that publisher rejected it, he wrote across the manuscript “Not to be published”, and it wasn’t performed until 1990.
It is an engaging and rather unexpected little suite, evoking the countryside in spring and summer, without the larger landscape canvas we associate with the composer. In the first two movements, the violin is essentially the first among equals, and the first (‘Country Scenery’) does indeed sound rather American, shades of Copland, perhaps, with its sense of dance. The second (‘Evening in Spring’) is rather lovely and whimsical, and could so easily be by an English composer (the chamber music of Bax springs to mind), reminding one of the close association (and mutual admiration) between Sibelius and some of the major contemporary English composers. The final movement, ‘In the Summer’, though, is quite simply Sibelius’ Flight of the Bumblebee, a virtuoso running dance on the violin with suitably pizzicato strings.
The violinist was the Norwegian Ragnhild Hemsing, here making her Canadian debut. She is equally at home with a classical violin and a folk instrument, having studied both from early childhood. In Thursday’s concert she played some Norwegian folk music on a hardanger fiddle, the traditional Norwegian folk instrument. Beautifully decked in mother-of-pearl on the fingerboard and with a dragon’s head as the scroll at the top of the pegboard, the instrument has four sympathetic strings for resonance underneath the normal four playing strings.
Some of that folk knowledge coloured her interpretation of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, to good effect, especially in the main cadenza of the first movement. On the Thursday, her performance of that movement was a little soulless, but Friday’s – a performance of the complete concerto – was richer in hue, more emotionally involved.
Prior again secured clarity and layered dynamics from the ESO, and if there was the occasional glitch – there were a couple of moments when Hemsing was a little wayward in tempi, and the horns couldn’t quite play down to her very soft playing at the end of the second movement – that end of the second movement was magically peaceful, full of hope, and in the final movement Hemsing again brought out the folk connections in Sibelius’ writing.
Thursday’s concert included both Valse Triste and its accompanying movement (not nearly so often heard), ‘Scenes with Cranes’: together they make Kuolema, Op.44. I had written of the opening concert in the Festival that the orchestra had achieved some really soft playing, but I hadn’t then heard them in Valse Triste, for here Prior went for a performance of dynamic contrasts, with a ghostly tone rather than the more mawkish, frenzied build-up that is often heard. Wonderful soft playing, but it had to compete with a very noisy audience, whose shuffling and dropping of programs and other sundry noises around me were actually louder at one point than the music.
A very beautiful performance of ‘Scenes with Cranes’ was repeated on the Friday, where the silence and rapt attention of the audience allowed full rein to that quieter playing, complete with those atmospheric cries from the two clarinets.
For me, though, the highlight of the two concerts were the performances of the Karelia Suite, which opened both evenings. I have known and loved this work since my teens, and can safely say that if the ESO had recorded the performance of the opening Intermezzo, I would have instantly gone out and bought it, to top the many recordings of it I already have.
Thursday’s performance introduced the virtues of Prior’s interpretation. He took it a little slower than Barbirolli (a Sibelian master), with the result that it was both more lyrical and conversely more deliberate, with rollicking discipline from the orchestra. The Friday performance was not quite so deliberate, but the crescendo into the main march was ideal, and the tempi, again a little slower, made me think that this is how Sir Adrian Boult would have conducted it. At the same time the textures were cleaner, leaner, than in Karajan’s view (and I know Prior admires Karajan’s Sibelius). For me, this was the most ideal interpretation of this movement I have yet heard.
In the second movement, where on Thursday the orchestra again showed they can play a genuine ppp, the approach was lyrical, more atmospheric in Friday’s performance. The final movement was definitely more effective on the Friday, with Prior adopting what might be described as a sleigh-ride tempi (most appropriate to the Karelian landscape). Both performances showed the Edmonton Symphony at their best.
The Festival continues on Saturday, March 9. The first half consists of two late works, the incidental music to The Tempest, and the tone poem that comes closest to symphonic proportions, and to a savagery in the northern landscape, Tapiola. The Festival finishes with what is perhaps Sibelius’ most popular symphony, the Second in D major.