Sibelius’s seven symphonies, all performed in just three nights, were rightly the centre of the Proms celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. But Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are framing the symphonies with early and late works. Next weekend Oramo is conducting En Saga and the symphonic suite Kullervo, the works that established Sibelius as an orchestral composer, while he began this concert with the final tone poem, Tapiola, building it to an elemental, almost neurotic climax, before an unmistakably radiant coda.
Though the iconic work at the other end of the evening was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, in a typically buoyant Oramo performance, the Nordic theme was continued with the two works in between. With its rugged, uncompromising dissonances and mountainous upheavals Jón Leifs’ Organ Concerto, first performed in 1935, came across like Icelandic Carl Ruggles, and though Leifs studied with Busoni, the sinuous chromaticisms of his melodic lines recall Reger more than any other composer.
The concerto is built around a huge central passacaglia, on to which Leifs grafts an Icelandic chorale towards the end, but, despite Oramo’s best efforts and those of the soloist Stephen Farr, the Albert Hall acoustic blurred those saturated textures into mush, and it’s hard to imagine a space in which the work would fit at all comfortably.
There was a British premiere in the concert, too. Oramo conducted the first performance of Anders Hillborg’s Beast Sampler in Stockholm last autumn. It’s a compact showpiece lasting about 10 minutes for an orchestra without any percussion, and built out of glistening sheets of sound that collide, pile up and move over each other, in ways that seem to be derived from Hillborg’s experience of composing electro-acoustic pieces. There are some well heard textures, especially when the textures unravel into multiple independent lines, but it’s all just a bit too well-behaved to be really arresting.