Osmo Vänskä on Sibelius

Osmo Vanska

This October Osmo Vänskä conducts the Orchestra in a complete cycle of Sibelius’s seven symphonies. Andrew Mellor talks to the Finnish conductor about the journey ahead...

Find out more about Vänskä's Sibelius Symphony Cycle (19–28 October) ...

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AM: Why combine Sibelius’s symphonies with British string concertos?

OV: It’s a natural direction to go in. England was one of the first countries where Sibelius’s music was played and understood, and we wanted an extra strand to these concerts: it was more about the audience than anything musicological.

These concertos were written during Sibelius’s lifetime, and two of them – Britten’s and Walton’s – after he stopped composing, during his famous silence. Music was advancing without him …

Yes, there is a chronological connection, and in some cases a musical one too. I think you can hear something in the way Walton uses the orchestra that might be connected to Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and a late piece like Tapiola. Walton was an international composer like Sibelius – more so than Vaughan Williams – a composer whose music is coming from somewhere discernible but doesn’t stay there.

The symphonies present quite a journey. The First and Seventh are separated by a quarter of a century and a huge stylistic gulf …

… but the First Symphony is quite a statement, no? It’s a wild piece by a young composer who really wanted to announce his arrival. That is why the tempo markings are so important. Sibelius stipulated extremely fast speeds that almost nobody does, but they are important as they underline the Symphony’s provenance. With slower speeds, the Symphony sounds as though it was composed by an old master, which it wasn’t.

It’s fascinating what follows – the very different sort of momentum of the Seventh Symphony and before that, the occasional inertia of the Fourth. That work’s silence and space is something that orchestras have struggled with …

An orchestra’s struggle is connected always to a conductor’s struggle! And that’s the thing. Sometimes if there’s something you don’t understand the easiest thing is to speed up, and wait for a passage that you understand better. But I’m stubborn enough to believe in the score and to follow the score even if I don’t understand it. That way of thinking can deliver great results.

You’re famous for following the score to the letter, so has anything changed in your approach to these pieces since your last complete cycle with the LPO in 2010?

We get older, and even the same ideas can sound different. I don’t know what it is exactly, but when I’m conducting nowadays I sometimes feel as though I have more time – more time to breathe. So perhaps the ideas are the same, but the colours have altered slightly.

Each symphony has its own context in Sibelius’s personal life. Do the historical facts shape your approach to them?

His life is a very influential part of how I understand the music – his good days and his bad days.

And are those things you talk to the Orchestra about in rehearsal – or do they stay in your head?

They are mostly in my head. I sometimes try to tell the musicians how I feel, to explain why I’m asking them to do something and perhaps to encourage them to go deeper. Generally musicians hate conductors who talk too much. But a piece like the Fourth Symphony needs some explanation – the fact that Sibelius really thought he was going to die. You can use that to explain how some passages should be as slow and as minimalistic as possible.

But some things are more difficult to explain – like the flow of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, where the orchestra really has to listen, as if there’s no conductor at all …

That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to do the symphonies as chronologically as possible, because by the time you come to the Sixth and Seventh, you’ve learnt so many things from their predecessors. And that’s one of the results: that the orchestra sounds by itself. I think it’s possible to put everything together from the score’s tempo markings, dynamics, phrasing and such. If you do that well, you get that natural flow. If the music sounds like it’s man-made – if you don’t feel that it’s about life – then maybe something is wrong.

Osmo Vänskä conducts Sibelius's symphonies in four concerts at Royal Festival Hall, 19–28 October. Find out more and book tickets by visiting lpo.org.uk/sibelius.