Sibelius anniversary, Wigmore Hall, London

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At Ainola, Sibelius’s home outside Helsinki, one of the most arresting images is a death-fixated painting inextricably linked to his youngest daughter Kirsti, who died in 1900 aged 15 months. The painting’s musical equivalent is Sibelius’s Malinconia for cello and piano. Unfolding like an extended, internalised wail, it set a mournful note at the start of Thursday’s recital, which brought a group of distinguished Finnish musicians to London to mark the 50th anniversary of Sibelius’s death and kick off the Beyond Sibelius festival.

Given the longstanding popularity of his symphonies, it’s strange that Sibelius’s chamber music and songs should be so undervalued. He may not have written huge quantities but the quality is undeniable, as this recital demonstrated. Nevertheless, by putting Malinconia next to his only mature string quartet, Voces intimae, the programme-planners did Sibelius no favours. Both pieces capture him at his most inwardly fraught, an impression intensified by Tuomas Ylinen and Valeria Resjan in Malinconia and Meta4 in the quartet. The latter’s opening two movements suffered from Meta4’s reluctance to let the music speak for itself: the result was neither intimate nor sensitive to individual voicing. Thereafter, Sibelius’s long structural lines imposed their own forbidding logic – but the interval came as a relief.

What we needed was a soprano voice to banish the mood of psychological imprisonment. Jorma Hynninen’s dramatic powers at least dignified the gloom. Hynninen, one of the greatest of all Finnish vocal interpreters, now in the evening of his career, is a true communicator. His bass-baritone may have lost its bloom but it still has a heroic quality, best profiled in the defiant, declamatory nature-landscape of “I am a Tree”. There was no mistaking the Erlkönig-like fantasy of “Under the Fir Trees”, the sexual imagery of “To Frigga” or the spooky attractions of “Theodora”.

No wonder Sibelius never completed an opera: thanks to the warmth of Hynninen’s vocal embrace, these songs were almost like operas in themselves, their word- and mood-settings worthy to be ranked alongside the great German Lieder composers. But there’s a lighter, brighter side to Sibelius, and we missed that.
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