This September, Mikko Franck takes over from Myun-Whun Chung as Chief Conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, where he's been guesting for the last twelve years. He was only 24 at the time, yet had already been conducting professionally since his teens At the Sibelius Academy, he was a young prodigy, widely tipped for international acclaim. Fortunately, early fame didn't go to his head and distort his talent. Instead he built his skills steadily, By the age of 22, he had become Chief Conductor of Orchestre National de Belgique. He went on to be Music Director of the Finnish National Opera, which is a much bigger deal than opera houses in other countries, because in Finland, opera is so dominant that it's the focus of much new writing. Franck commanded such respect that he was able to regain his position after resigning in protest at the management, not something that can be done lightly. In the early stages of his career, he was plagued by poor health (injuries and asthma) but that seems to have been resolved. ORF know what they're doing.
France Musique presents a selection of Franck's Sibelius concerts with them over the years Interesting and unusual choices, such as the Nocturne from King Christian II, Sibelius Violin Concerto with Baiba Skride, En Saga and a magnificent Sibelius Symphony No 7. Ironically, it must be harder for Finnish conductors to tackle Sibelius, because he carries so much extra musical weight in his home nation that it can be hard to interpret him in purely musical terms. As Esa-Pekka Salonen said, he couldn't face conducting Sibelius until he had himself matured, much in the way that you can;t really appreciate your father until you've become your own person.
Sibelius used to complain about “distorted” performances of his work, as he told his friend Simon Parmet, whose book about the symphonies was first published in English in 1959 , though written much earlier. It's such a personal, first hand account that it's still a key document in Sibelius interpretation. “Many conductors seem unwilling to allow their impulsive playing to be disturbed by intellectual considerations and sober musical thinking”, he wrote. “A conductor can acquire an authoritative position in relation to a composer’s work equal to that of the composer himself if he possesses an exact knowledge of his logic, a knowledge which must be extracted from the text of the composer’s work. Then, and only then, can he feel sure of keeping faith with the intentions of the composer. (Only) then will he be entitled to let his own subconscious take over and guide him through those difficult passages which no degree of intellectual effort could help him master”.
Since Sibelius's music is so remarkable, it's easy enough to play safe and wow audiences with something predictably overblown, but good conductors do more. And Sibelius deserves more. Thus I like Franck's Sibelius, which sounds clean, fresh and vibrant.