Rautavaara premiere at Festival Hall, review

Colin Currie
Daily Telegraph

By Ivan Hewett

Lurking deep in the British psyche must be an ancestral memory of snow-covered Northern forests and ancient Nordic myth. How else to explain the massive appeal of Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer who in the 1930s and 1940s was so popular he was practically an honorary Brit? Add to those factors a somewhat New Age-ish evocation of shamanistic rituals round a campfire, and you go some way to explaining the current popularity of the elderly Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Rautavaara's new percussion concerto, Incantations, premiered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, launched off with a sadly modal melody which might have sounded embarrassingly conventional. But the weirdly dissonant shadowings in the woodwind, the misty string backdrop and the strange percussion glissandi made it rivetingly strange. The other very striking moment was the solo cadenza. This was composed by the soloist Colin Currie, who showed a real flair for translating Rautavaara's cold expressive climate into the inherently tropical sound-world of percussion. The long meditative passages for vibraphone and the more agitated 'shamanistic' dances that interrupted them were more conventional. But Currie played them with such artistry that they seemed almost inspired. Though each individual idea was not so strong, the impression of the whole certainly was – which was the most mysterious aspect of a very mysterious piece.

After the interval came that towering pinnacle of late-romantic orchestral music, Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. In comparison with Rautavaara's concerto it was reassuringly massive and solid, but in many ways it's also an elusive piece. The first movement seems to discover its key-centre rather than asserting it, and the last movement is a complex journey, full of sudden reversals where a massive sound drops away to leave a lonely flute perched over a tense pianissimo drumroll.

The conductor was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who pulled off the impressive feat of conducting this immense piece from memory. Perhaps it was the freedom this gave him to think in the long-term that made his shaping of Bruckner's long paragraphs so convincing. The piece makes huge demands on the orchestra's stamina, especially the brass, but the LPO rose to the challenge magnificently. The most telling moment was the very last, when Nézet-Séguin shaded off the final chord rather than going for sheer volume. It was a canny substitute for the cathedral-like final echo the piece needs, and created a sense of something immense fading away on the air.