Review: Visiting the Seasides with Sibelius, Britten, and Seattle Symphony

25th March, 2018

As he has so often, Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot put together an arresting juxtaposition of works for this weekend’s trio of concerts. Using the sea as a common denominator, he included two works we rarely hear live, Sibelius’ The Oceanides, and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the opera Peter Grimes (which I wish Seattle Opera would mount).

To complete the program, he added the much more familiar Sibelius Symphony No 2. Two very different composers, Britten and Sibelius were creating their sea-infused compositions 30 years apart: Sibelius in 1914, just before the start of WWI, Britten in 1944 in the midst of WWII. Under Morlot, the weight and strength of the ocean and its inexorability come through clearly in the lower registers of both The Oceanides and the Sea Interludes, but what also comes through is the gentler aspect of the Baltic Sea which borders southern Finland, an almost-enclosed sea as opposed to the more tempestuous North Sea Britten knew, open to storms from the Arctic and the South Atlantic.

Some of the gentler aspect of the Sibelius is due to his more Romantic musical language. Even the inevitable storm scene isn’t as wild as the astringent palette Britten uses throughout and the starker and more dangerous feel of the storm in the last Interlude. The story behind The Oceanides is a Greek legend of sea nymphs, and these are there through the work, symbolized by dancing, fluttering flutes and harp glissades over the low string waves, in excellent performances by flutes led by Jeffrey Barker and harp led by Valerie Muzzolini Gordon. Principal oboe Mary Lynch added long serene melody towards the end of the storm fury section leading to the end’s swelling and ebbing chord.

The five short sections of the Britten are equally descriptive, with the birds twittering at dawn, the church bells ringing, peace when the ocean was quiet, then the violent storm, all of it with the powerful ocean making its presence felt. The imperious birds (maybe seagulls?) are shrill, with the flutes overblowing and the strings a tad harsh, giving a sense of wind tossing them around. Morlot brought out every detail of the work’s inner voices and the colors which pervade the scenes portrayed in a remarkable performance. Both this and The Oceanides performances were deeply satisfying.

Equally satisfying was the last work on the program, the far better-known Symphony No. 2, composed more than a decade earlier and in a much more 19th-century lush Romantic vein. The second movement is particularly imaginative, with plucked basses and later cellos too, rising and falling with the melodies gradually added above, all of it building to a dramatic change, which under Morlot made the whole seem fresh and new. Towards the symphony’s exhilarating peroration, he urged it louder and louder but never did he let it become a shriek. The warmth was always there.


25 March 2018
Philippa Kiraly / The SunBreak