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Matthews & Sibelius

Colin Matthews Suns Dance
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra/Diego Masson

Sibelius Finlandia
Beethoven Piano Concerto No.5
Sibelius Lemminkäinen Legends

Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Royal Festival Hall September 30, 2010

High energy night at the Festival Hall !

The well attended Music of Today pre-concert had Esa-Pekka Salonen on stage to introduce composer Unsuk Chin, who will run this increasingly successful series next season. We were told by Julian Anderson that these concerts are prepared to an inconceivably tight schedule, but "they can play anything" and learn quickly.

The occasion was a reminder of London Sinfonietta's well-remembered 1985 hit from the then youngish Colin Matthews (b.1946). Suns Dance for ten players has become an iconic repertoire piece. Matthews described its gnomic title facetiously as related to his then small son's hyperactivity (ADHD - newly identified as a genetic condition).

Suns Dance is a frenetic piece which Matthews tried to deconstruct for us beforehand with musical examples, but it remains a virtuoso ensemble piece, modernist music to enjoy without any possibility of 'understanding' its intricacies. The ten 'extreme' instrumentalists (winds piccolo to contrabassoon; John Orford, as surely in 1985 too?) played it convincingly under Diego Masso and to prolonged acclamation.

Finlandia was given a brash, show-off account which failed to convince and Hélène Grimaud's uninvolved traversal of 'The Emperor' concerto, with no obvious rapport between piaist and conductor, did not enthuse me, heard again soon after a lengthy immersion in Beethoven on pianos of his own day (see Bilson et al and Bezuidenhout). From a stalls R seat I was struck by the unnaturally bright toning of the RFH Steinway's treble. Maybe they'll get the newest Fazioli, which bids to be even louder... *

Sibelius’s 'Lemminkäinen Legends', given in Sibelius's original order, ended the full evening and vindicated their occasional airing complete. The longest, given first, does seem a little diffuse? ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ had some amazing sonorities, with alternating tremolo activity between basses and cellos, and its orchestration was remarkable for the mid-1890s. The cor anglais solo (Jill Crowther) in 'The Swan of Tuonela' was affecting as always, but she was a little backward in the usual woodwind position and upstaged at one point by the cello solo front stage. ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’ brought the concert to an exhilarating finish.

'Suns Dance' was filmed, and a CD of the main concert looked likely, seeing all the microphones on stage...

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Maybe a bad day for Grimaud &/or me... Have today heard her DVD of the Ravel concerto on SkyArts2 - superb! (Available from Amazon)