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Michael Tumelty on the music of Sibelius

During Neeme Jarvi’s recent return visit to the RSNO, the concert he gave in Glasgow featured something striking: a rivetingly detailed performance of Sibelius’s suite drawn from the incidental music the Finnish composer wrote for a staging of Maeterlink’s symbolist play Pelleas et Melisande.

The performance, I remarked in my review, was a reminder of what a superb Sibelius conductor Neeme Jarvi can be.

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What I did not observe, deliberately, because I couldn’t think of a diplomatic way of putting it without implying insult to the orchestra (which I would not have intended) is that the performance was also a reminder of what a great Sibelius orchestra the RSNO used to be.

Let me explain. For starters, in the right hands the RSNO can still turn out a Sibelius symphony that pushes all the buttons in the fields of organic development, inevitability and that quintessential Sibelian characteristic, intensity.

Alexander Lazarev, on his night, could stoke up the Sibelius boiler till it quivered with tension; as with everything, he tended to drive it hard. Current music director Stephane Deneve tackled his first Sibelius symphony in December (number two). He was agog at the magnetic intensity generated within the music – and he did not a bad job on it.

But the fact is that in the hyper-intense world of Sibelius interpretation and performance, the RSNO has rather fallen away. The music of Sibelius is a drug. Once it’s into your veins and your arteries, it will never let you go. If too long deprived, you will crave a fix so badly it hurts. It is said that we Scots have this Nordic music in our blood. I don’t really know what that means, but instinctively, though a native Geordie of Irish extraction, I can feel it in my own response to the pulse and to the temperature of this amazing music. Though I never really knew him, I have always been convinced that Motherwell-born Sir Alexander Gibson recognised that temperature and pulse. When he came back to Scotland and took over the SNO, one of his first decisions in his first season as principal conductor was to programme all seven of Sibelius’s symphonies, a dangerous and daring strategy 51 years ago.

In his 25-year tenure as principal conductor, Gibson became renowned as one of the great Sibelius conductors. Finland recognised that when they gave him the country’s top award. But the SNO, at the same time, became known as one of the outstanding Sibelius orchestras. Together they recorded all the symphonies, and it remains a set worth having and loving.

I have a personal view on why Gibson was such a great Sibelian. It was for the same reasons he was a great conductor of Puccini’s operas: it was his sense of line, his ability to transcend metre and accent, and his ability to create a sense of seamless flow and growth.

Since his day, no conductor has secured from the now-RSNO the same Sibelian sense of intensity and inexorability. Jerzy Maksymiuk’s raw and high-voltage Sibelius with the BBC SSO dominated the Scottish-Nordic landscape in the 1980s. Osmo Vanka’s presence with the SSO in the 1990s, with an unforgettable cycle of the symphonies, redrew the boundaries of Sibelius interpretation.

The same orchestra’s second cycle, with a mix of conductors including Leif Segerstam, produced the greatest and most shattering Fifth Symphony I have heard.

The RSNO’s recent performance of Pelleas with Jarvi put it into perspective. About 10 years ago, Simon Crookall, former chief exec of the orchestra, said: “The RSNO needs a good Sibelius conductor; we need to reclaim this music.” He was right.

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