First published in the Guardian on 23 February, 2015
That Sibelius had his share of demons is no secret; his music has been picked apart for traces of self-doubt and alcoholism. In the Violin Concerto, written during a particularly bad patch in 1902-5, the solo line treads the fringes of control, alternately cajoled and comforted by a surging orchestra. Had violinist Guy Braunstein thought through his boozy encore, joking that his version of Kreisler’s Toy Soldier must have had a bit to drink? It earned a few uneasy laughs.
Braunstein recently left the Berlin Philharmonic after ten years as leader (its youngest ever) and now devotes his time to solo, chamber and conducting work. He makes a big sound with big vibrato and his low register is very swank. His Sibelius with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles was a bullish romp that gave away too much too soon, cruised through the Adagio and clattered through the finale. There’s struggle enough in this music without smothering the breath out of it.
But the orchestra was on terrific form. There’s been plenty of talk in recent weeks about what constitutes a good Sibelius sound; comparisons aside, Runnicles and the BBCSSO found a gorgeous palette of dark focus in the strings, ice-melt clarity in the winds and a hint of melancholic warble from the trumpets. Their account of the Seventh Symphony was taught and unflinching. Maybe it began too sure on its feet, maybe the squalls didn’t erupt to full ferocity, but Runnicles delivered the work in what felt like a single phrase and arrived at the close without hyperbole. There was a clean, brutal inevitability to the whole trajectory. The concert was framed with Beethoven overtures — the stormy Coriolan to start, the uplifting Leonore No. 3 to finish. Both sounded svelte and resolute.