Symphony Hall ****

This triumphant, emotional return of Sakari Oramo to the CBSO whose podium he graced so productively during ten years as music director, had one perhaps unexpected side-effect. So authoritative on the platform is this now principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, so naturally at ease with the players, so thrilling in the effects he conjures, that his presence throws into relief many of the other conductors the CBSO has engaged since his departure in 2008, and makes their contributions appear disappointing in retrospect – rather like Ulysses returning to Penelope, whose many suitors were cast into the shade.

It was thrilling to welcome Oramo back, to huge acclaim on both sides of the footlights, and what more fitting programme than one allowing him to bring his experienced insights into the music of his Finnish homeland. A rare performance of Sibelius’ late incidental music to The Tempest proved revelatory of the composer’s grasping towards a new language as he approached the end of his creative career, its modernist, searching sounds expertly paced by Oramo, rhythms crisp, drama informing all the playing, not least the grinding, stamina- and concentration-sapping Storm finale.

Mrs Oramo, soprano Anu Komsi, was soloist in the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. Her immersal in these autumnal texts was touching, but her steely timbre in high tessituras seemed inappropriate when rounded Wagnerian tones were desired. She bravely responded to the very slow tempo set for the concluding Im Abendrot, and had earlier collaborated in wonderful dialogues with solo violin and horn.

Komsi was far better suited to the fragmentary textures of Ekho, by Aarre Merikanto, a Finnish composer working a generation or so after Sibelius, in this work telling of the myth of Echo and Narcissus. The fact that Narcissus loved only his own reflection in the water has echoes (ha!) of Debussy’s Melisande, and in fact resonances of that delicately-shaded opera were very near here, with Komsi contributing in effect a vocalised instrumental line to these delicate structures.

But where were the texts and translations for both these vocal works? None in the programme-booklet, and no surtitles. When one considers the money being expended on spurious lighting effects in selected concerts, some of it should have been diverted here.

Finally came what would certainly qualify as mu Highlight of the Year in the halcyon days when such an annual roundup existed, Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony in a reading monumentally responsive to its intellectual and emotional magnitude, belying its structural compactness. Over the years Sakari Oramo has built up a total understanding of its organic growth and shape, and from its framework he drew here generous richness of orchestral tone, building sonorous climaxes, eventually arriving at that famous long-drawn out C major cadence which sealed such an awesome experience.

The three pivotal trombone solos were noble in their delivery from Richard Watkin. Thank goodness the new razzmatazz didn’t impinge upon this concert, otherwise he would have stood like a jazz soloist for each one, and we would have been expected to applaud as he concluded each spot.

Christopher Morley

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