The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion days are usually devoted to contemporary music, but the first of this season’s events at the Barbican focused on a composer who died 65 years ago, and who effectively had stopped writing music 30 years before that. Sibelius’s stature among the greatest of 20th-century composers rests primarily on his symphonies, but these four concerts explored the narratives behind his tone poems and songs.
The two programmes given by the BBCSO under its chief conductor Sakari Oramo provided the heft of the day, but there were other contributions too. Some of Sibelius’s solo songs, all settings in Swedish (the composer’s first language) of Finland’s national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, were performed by students from the Guildhall School, alongside melodramas from opposite ends of his composing career, the 1893 Nights of Jealousy, for reciter, soprano and piano trio, and A Lonely Ski Trail, from 1925, with piano accompaniment. And later the BBC Singers, conducted by Owain Park, offered a selection of unaccompanied choral settings by Sibelius and also by his pupils Leevi Madetoja and Toivo Kuula.
Oramo’s performances were interleaved with narrations by the actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, in which he outlined the background to each of the works and read relevant extracts from their literary sources. Some of Sibelius’s best known tone poems, such as En Saga and Tapiola, were naturally included, alongside pieces that are far less often heard such as The Bard, enigmatic and introspective, and Night Ride and Sunrise, its final pages given a golden radiance by the BBCSO. In some of those works too the distinction between what is a tone poem and what could be regarded as a symphony becomes a fine one – Pohjola’s Daughter, magnificently taut and focused here, has many symphonic characteristics, while Tapiola, its massive climax hair-raisingly vivid under Oramo, clearly belongs in the same world as the Sixth and Seventh symphonies.
There were songs in the BBCSO’s second concert too, orchestral versions of The Echo Nymph, from Sibelius’s Op 72 and Sunrise from his Op 32 set, sung with relaxed familiarity by the soprano Anu Komsi. But it was Komsi’s performance of Luonnotar, the setting of a creation myth from the Kalevala that is one of Sibelius’s greatest achievements, that was on another level altogether. It became an experience of soaring operatic intensity, which was reinforced by Oramo’s insistence that every detail of the orchestral writing registered equally vividly too. But then the standard of performances had been consistently high throughout; this really was one of the special immersion days.
• All concerts broadcast on Radio 3 on 20 November.