For anyone still not familiar, each concert focuses on a single work; in this instance Sibelius’ Symphony No.5. The first half of the evening is spent exploring the work, which is then performed in full in the second half to an enlightened audience.
So far so simple, but to actually drill down into a piece as aloof as Sibelius’ Fifth in only 45 minutes or so is no easy task. It would be so tempting to have recourse to the contextual – to talk about the biographical and historical “knowns” that surround the work. Thankfully, Rissmann took the braver route and presented insights which actually attempted to articulate how one might listen to the music itself.
In his deceptively uncomplicated style, using pictorial aids and simple thematic concepts, Rissmann was able to talk about Sibelius’s musical ideas, to highlight how they are adapted and subverted, to acknowledge the difficulties of the composer’s somewhat obstinate musical personality and, even, to suggest ways of listening beyond those difficulties.
Rissmann’s great achievement was borne out in the success of the second half. A little forewarning gave conductor Christian Kluxen carte blanche to explore the more hostile elements of the symphony – elongated melodies, fragmented thematic developments, extended piano subjects, sustained dissonances – resulting in a performance that was both intellectually and emotionally enriched.