One of the major themes of this year’s Proms is the commemoration of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. The Proms on August 12 and 13 were programmed to put Boulez into a context, offering his music alongside that of his predecessors Ravel, Stravinsky, and Messiaen. The Proms concerts on August 15, 16 and 17, featuring all of the Sibelius symphonies in order over three evenings, additionally projected Sibelius’s influence forward: the only music on those three evenings not by Sibelius was the first performance of a BBC commission from Michael Finnissy.
Sibelius is a composer who would seem not to be neglected, however at the same time that his music is “popular” and certain pieces of his are performed fairly often, he doesn’t often seem to be recognized as an modernist whose methods of dealing with musical materials and building musical structures are just as novel as a number of his younger contemporaries, such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Janacek, and Bartok. His seven symphonies are probably his most important works. Hearing them all together, one after another, the consistency of them, both in terms of language and quality, is striking. The performances, on August 15 by the BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, on August 16 by the same orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, and on August 17 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, were all of a very high level, although the playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony was really memorable for the sheer beauty of its sound and the continuous presence of a certain kind of music making which one might describe as loving. In addition to the Symphonies, the first concert included the tone poem Finlandia and the second included the Violin Concerto, with Julian Rachlin as soloist.
Michael Finnissy is undoubtedly one of the major living British composers, which makes the few number of times that pieces of his have been included on the Proms something of a mystery, especially when one considers other composers whose pieces have been programmed many more times and regularly; this piece was the third work of his to be scheduled on Proms concerts. He described Janne, the title being a diminutive of Siblius’s first name, as “an imaginary portrait of Sibelius or, more exactly, a portrait of his music and its sources.” Finnissy described the work as a set of variations (“or variant explorations”) on a bit of a tune from the Finnish folk epic, the Kalevala. In fact those variations underlie a profuse fantasia of “foreign elements”, allusions to music of other composers who influenced Sibelius, Tschaikovsky and Bruckner, and “the flotsom and jetsam of 20th-century musical history (such as Futurism, Impressionism, new simplicity, new complexity)”. The variations, which surface from time to time featuring solos and small concertino groups–a single bassoon, then three horns, then viola, and later oboe and ‘cello, then a solo violin–provide a grounding structure, which along with an extraordinarily compelling harmonic trajectory, give a clear and sure progress through the span of the piece. It is striking that, while Janne, which very strongly evokes Sibelus’s language and methodology, is in a number of ways a much more conventional work, and much more conventionally skillful, dazzlingly so, than one might expect from Finnissy, it is at the same time completely personal and identifiable as the work of its composer, in its evoking and estranging of its elements, and it’s starkly contrasting “plain and more ornate, even conflicted, surfaces”. It is wonderfully convincing and satisfying, and it is just beautiful.
All of these concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player) . The Finnissy is also available separately in a special section of new music on the Proms (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pcr1d).