Every couple of years, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra visits Austria and provides a chance to get a splash of Sibelius served ice cold. I’ve heard them in the Musikverein and in the Konzerthaus, and this year they brought Sibelius to Salzburg’s Great Festival House for the 150th year of the composer’s birth.
Music Director Okko Kamu coaxed a full sound from the orchestra, but rather than lush and flowing, the music emerges icily, with hard edges, an arctic river before the winter. En Saga led off the program, with accentuated melodies that danced like nymphs from rock to rock. The Third Symphony completed the scheduled program with more of the same. Sibelius’ big chorales sang broadly without words – but Sibelius famously said that if people wanted to sing, they should sing. Two movements from the composer’s incidental music to Pelléas and Mélisande arrived as encores, also skating on the congealing ice.
In the midst of all of this came Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. That German composer’s most famous and popular work normally sounds warm, but by sticking it in the midst of the Sibelius these forces did not contrast but rather accentuated its edgier bits. Soloist Elina Vähälä dug in to this interpretation, her bow a blade against the icy strings. Like the orchestra, her sound also came out full but hard (and sometimes a tad sharp, almost on purpose it seemed). For an encore, she joined up with the first and second chair violins for a trio, which she introduced as coming “from Finland” (but more than that it was not exactly clear what it was): a modern work, albeit harking back to an older tradition, and which all three violinists attacked with the same style and method for good results.