Legends by the Sea: Ashkenazy conducts Sibelius – Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Friday 8th February

Vladimir Ashkenazy certainly knows how to choose ambitious and epic programs. The 2013 season opening, this concert focused almost exclusively on the orchestra, with only a small appearance by soprano Jacqueline Porter in Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite rather than a full concerto. With the three works all hailing from the turn of the twentieth century, and all in some way programmatic, the focus of this performance was without a doubt the colour and variety of a modern orchestra.

The Lemminkäinen Suite, an early set of four tone poems by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, is not often heard in full, with the lyrical Swan of Tuonela more often appearing alone. Here, the Swan poem was played second in the suite, though some conductors choose to start with it, as the musical material was originally drawn from the overture of an abandoned opera The Building of the Boat. This was very much a dramatic focus point of the performance, both for musical intention and execution. Cor anglais player Alexandre Oguey was lyrical and pensive, giving a feel of effortlessness and yet ever so slight yearning to the musical line. The other three poems – Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela and Lemminkäinen Returns – are trickier to digest thematically. Ashkenazy’s conducting showed that he had a clear direction for the music, but it didn’t always sound that way, and I’m inclined to feel that it is rather the musical material that feels somewhat disjointed. To be sure, there are moments of thrilling splendor; the rustic dance towards the end of the Maidens of Saari and the climax of Lemminkäinen Returns among them. But there were other points where musical cohesion was somewhat lacking and the whole thing felt rather muddy. Despite this, the orchestra played with energy and conviction. It was only a pity that the woodwinds (especially flute and piccolos) were for the most part lost in the texture, even at points of melodic importance. While the low strings’ start to Lemminkäinen in Tuonela was perhaps somewhat under-articulated, it nevertheless encapsulated the poem’s brooding atmosphere.

Gabriel Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, by contrast, is strongly thematic without having to shout about it. Written in 1898 for the English production of Maurice Materlinck’s play, the five-movement suite calls for a soprano (Jacqueline Porter) for the penultimate movement Mélisande’s Song. Though the woodwinds remained on the quiet side, Ashkenazy’s exploration of colour here was stunning. The outer movements – somewhat weightier in scale – were well crafted, with sensitive interweaving of string lines. By far the most well known movement – the Sicilienne – was thoughtful and not too heavy, though principal flute Janet Webb could perhaps have varied her dark tone a little to explore the more playful side of the music. Jacqueline Porter’s singing was rich and expressive, capturing the folk-legend feel of this movement despite its brevity.

The choice to place Debussy’s La Mer at the end of this program (the Lemminkäinen Suite was originally destined for the ‘symphonic’ spot) was certainly a good one. Ashkenazy is totally at home in this music and the patchwork of colour it presents. Here, the three sketches made a wonderfully cohesive whole, with the orchestra tossing themes back and forth with seeming ease. This piece is very much about the idea of the sea rather than portraying any specific program, and it is clear that Ashkenazy felt the same way, striving for melody in its purest sense. The middle movement, Jeux de vagues (Play of Waves) was particularly impressive, with the interlocking rhythms coming together to give the performance a sense of gay abandon bordering with just the slightest touch of frivolity.