London Symphony Orchestra, The Barbican, Sir Colin Davis conductor, Nikolaj Znaider violin: Jan Sibelius, Les Océanides, Violin Concerto, Symphony No 4

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Dining at the Barbican, photo Michael Miller

Dining at the Barbican, photo Michael Miller

All-Sibelius Program
London Symphony Orchestra
The Barbican, July 3, 2008
Sir Colin Davis conductor
Nikolaj Znaider violin

Jan Sibelius
Les Océanides
Violin Concerto
Symphony No 4

Ugliness, thy name is Barbican. No other great orchestra has been miserably consigned to a concrete mausoleum of art except the London Symphony.  I went to hear them last night in an all-Sibelius program under Sir Colin Davis. One approaches the Barbican by trudging through an underpass with four lanes of traffic two feet from your elbow and banks of jaundice-colored sodium vapour lamps overhead.  The building itself looks like something airlifted intact from East Berlin. The architectural style is a spawn of Brutalism, a masochistic favourite with the British in the post-war era,  but without being quite as punitive.

Barbican Hall is wedged into the far right corner of the complex. At first sight the interior is consoling. Instead of bare concrete the walls are clad in warm wood. The seating is arranged like football bleachers,  set at a rising angle from the stage. The absence of side balconies seems like wasted space. As for the notoriously dry acoustic, it’s a curate’s egg.  Loud notes from the brass and percussion ping off the walls like bullets (the result of all that concrete under the wood cladding?), and there’s a serrated edge to the upper strings. On the other hand,  inner detail is sharp as an x-ray, and the orchestra feels very close and bright.  The overall effect is push-pull, because the music’s vividness draws you in until an abrasive brass attacks makes you cringe. At least you won’t fall asleep.

Except that I did. Jet lag obliterated the entire first work and much of the second. Therefore I have nothing to report about  Sibelius’ The Oceanides, his only tone poem based on a non-Finnish subject, if you can call wispy evocations of ocean nymphs a subject.  The Finns turn out Sibelius CDs like Oreos, but in the U.S. you can go a lifetime without encountering The Oceanides in the concert hall.  The whispered secret about Sibelius is that no other great composer is credited with so much poor music. Second on the program came the Violin Concerto in D, which is ubiquitous. Since I only heard the finale, I confess that losing the rest wasn’t sad. World-class violinists spend most of their career playing the same few bow-wow  showpieces. I could happily listen to the Beethoven and Brahms concertos as often as possible. The Bruch and Mendelssohn perhaps twice a year each. A committee should be formed to burn the meretricious Tchaikovsky in Red Square, and its nephew, the Sibelius, could use a long rest.

The soloist last night was the Danish virtuoso, Nikolaj Znaider, an appealing musician with a broad, singing tone (the G string is smooth as butter). Znaider endeared himself to me when he played the Mendelssohn in Chicago a few years ago. The reading was exceptionally fine, but the endearing part came afterward, when Znaider snuck into the back row of the first violins to participate in the Mahler Fifth, which ended the program. I ran off and bought one of his CDs in the orchestra shop so I could express my admiration while he signed it. Last night Znaider played very well, but he was outgunned by Davis, who  hogged the stage with a slow, bluff, and gruff accompaniment, one that few soloists could stand up to.

After intermission we got the Fourth Symphony. I sat up, released from the clutches of jet lag, and was astonished by a genuinely great performance. Over the years Davis has recorded the complete Sibelius symphonies no less than three times, two with the LSO. At eighty, he has relaxed into that marvellous kind of mastery, a la Pierre Monteux, where conducting seems effortless.  The Fourth is enigmatic. One recognizes the hallmarks of the composer in the sweeping lines, open chords, and evocative emptiness underlaid with rippling ostinato rhythms. Yet strangely, the melodies have been reduced to small cells, often no more than a few notes running up a modal scale and down again. As if chopped up by a Chinese cleaver, the music stutters and hesitates, and when you hit a more conventional movement like the Scherzo, the theme skitters nervously, tossed from oboe to strings as if nobody wants to hold on to it for more than a few seconds. Slower passages evaporate like mist just when you think you’ve grasped the harmony, and  then it creeps on to another ambiguous event.

The overall effect of the Fourth is emotionally confusing, and in a routine performance you feel that the composer doesn’t know what he wants to say. But Davis made everything sound perfectly coherent, because with intuitive finesse he made us hear what Sibelius actually intended – a mystical evocation of Nature. Not a description of vast Nordic woods (the image that annotators fall back upon when they are totally baffled by his music) but Nature internalized as holy, the repository of a truth deeper than tears.  The chopped-up melodies are broken sighs, uttered by someone who can’t bear to interrupt  his communion but does so just enough to say “See? The mystery.”

The audience, cough free throughout, was shattered by the end, before erupting into long, grateful cheers. Leaving, I brushed too close to the nubby concrete walls of the Barbican and scraped skin off my knuckles. As I sucked at my wound, I realized a use for the complex. You could run a herd of rhinoceros through and flay them alive.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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