Karita Matilla; Ben Heppner; Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

'Sibelius Unbound': Concerts 3 & 4

Barbican Hall, 9 & 10 November 2007 3.5 stars3 stars

Esa-Pekka Salonen (photo: Mikael Grönberg)As Esa-Pekka Salonen's Sibelius cycle with the Los Angeles Philharmonic developed, I couldn't escape the feeling that something so alluring on paper had failed to deliver quite all that it promised. It also occurred to me that the character of Sibelius's symphonies – each of them so different and yet full of similarities – means that they're really not that well suited to the completist treatment. It certainly says something that I came away from these two final concerts in the series having enjoyed the substantial fillers more than the actual symphonies.

Part of the blame for this must lie with Salonen's interpretations. After the first two concerts I was hopeful that his impulsive, free approach to these works would grow on me and be more suited to the remaining symphonies. However, there were times when impulsiveness seemed to turn into impatience. It was as if Salonen the composer felt a little embarrassed about Sibelius's tendency to lift the bonnet on his orchestration and lay out the mechanics for everyone to see. Surely the chugging ostinati and other effects should be clearly discernable rather than being lost in what Adorno diagnosed in Wagner as 'phantasmagoria', where everything blends together to create a magical effect of sonorities which should remain mysterious to the audience.

In Salonen's often rushed interpretations these details were lost, as was the feeling of inexorable forward motion. Salonen's professed desire to create the feeling of 'the ice breaking in a great northern riever in April' is all very well but I feel there are times when Sibelius's symphonies are a little more glacial, their progress admittedly slower but all the more inevitable. This impatience was summed up by the conductor's insistence on doggedly beating every beat, never sitting back and letting the music propel itself along; watching Salonen only intensified the feeling of rushing.

For anyone who was at the first two concerts in this series, it would have come as no surprise that the performances of the first and fifth symphonies, the final works on these two programmes, were the most successful. Here Sibelius himself is at his warmest and most Romantic. However, despite some really thrilling playing in the first, I didn't think Salonen did much to help create a feeling of symphonic unity. For the performance of the fifth, I couldn't help feel that wheeling out this old favourite as the sure-fire, rousing finale to the series was obvious and calculated. Even here, though, Salonen's performance seemed reluctant to let the symphony itself do the work, once again its effect was spoilt by the fast tempi chosen by the conductor, although he did slow down greatly for the finale's big theme. No doubt excellently played (the LA Philharmonic really does exude glossy-coated sonic health), I felt the work was not allowed to unfurl organically, rushed along its course by the impatient Salonen.

Karita Matilla (photo: Lauri Eriksson)As with his performances of the slightly more enigmatic fourth and seventh symphonies, Salonen seemed unsure of what to make of the third, which opened Friday's concert, and the sixth, which opened the final concert. In the third, despite some excellent wind playing and the horns really relishing their big moments, the first movement seemed to lack the rugged, outdoorsy feel which can make it so invigorating in the best performances. It was once again subjected to some extremes in tempo: the basic speed struck me as a little fast yet it almost ground to a halt at the coda. When the big theme in the finale gradually appeared, no-one seemed to bat an eyelid, and in this movement the otherwise impeccable wind players we also on slightly less good form.

Originally, this symphony was to have been proceeded by Kaija Saariaho's Quatre Instants. To reverse the order was wise. Although it rather reduced the symphony to the role of curtain raiser, Karita Matilla's performance of these four songs was so intensely felt and dramatic that nothing could have followed it. Saariaho writes that 'the fact these instants are associated with different faces of love is without doubt connected with the fact that I have seen Karita playing the role of a loving woman in so many opera productions' and it is indeed a work which fits the soprano's unique talents like a glove.

This is a work that seems to have fused together elements of Schoenberg's Erwartung, Poulenc's La voix humaine with a dash of Salome and Elektra. In Matilla's hands, the nobility of the character remains intact despite the obvious trauma (her strong and glamorous stage presence very much in keeping with Poulenc's ideal for 'elle' in his one-woman opera) and makes the four songs into dramatically effective monologues which one could almost imagine as excerpts of one opera. Deservedly, Matilla and Saariaho received an enthusiastic reception for this; in my view, it was the highlight of the series.

Ben Heppner (photo: © Sebastian Hänel/DG)The first half of the final concert was similar in form, a performance of the sixth symphony followed by Ben Heppner singing a selection of Sibelius's songs. Generally considered the 'slow-burner' of Sibelius's symphonic output, the sixth is one of the hardest to pull off convincingly. Salonen's approach did little to help its case. The expansive, lyrical opening was phrased lovingly by the strings but once again fast tempos (in the first movement the wind players seemed to struggle to articulate) prevented the work from establishing its unique character.

Heppner's contribution, however, was distinguished. Although in the first couple of numbers he had little chance to sing out, in the more exclamatory and passionate songs – 'The girl returned from meeting her lover' in particular – he sang ardently with secure and attractive tone; he's surely still unique among tenors for combining a steely Heldentenor ring with easy lyricism. John Estacio's orchestrations seemed to both enhance the songs and stay faithful to the originals.

So, in sum I couldn't help but be left with a slight feeling of disappointment with this series. In smaller doses, Salonen's Sibelius symphonies might well have been a lot more convincing but hearing them in isolation and quick succession seemed only to emphasise the problems with his approach.  

By Hugo Shirley