The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 6 & 7 and Tapiola (BIS)

Symphony No.6 in D minor, op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, op.105
Tapiola, op.112

Lahti Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Osmo Vänskä

BIS Records BIS-CD-864 (Details)
[68:16] full-price

An original Inkpot review by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

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At last, the final installment of the Lahti SO and Osmo Vänskä’s 1996-1997 BIS Sibelius Symphonies cycle. Appropriately, it ends with the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and the Symphonic Poem Tapiola – in many ways Sibelius’ “last symphony”.

Here we have a bright and winsomely beautiful performance of the Sixth Symphony (1923), as in the first movement, full of fairy lightness and glittering sunlight. Indeed, the Lahti players bring much light to a D minor symphony, something which I found very heartwarming. The second movement opens nostalgically, with distinctively flavoured orchestral colours despite the economy of the score. As usual, the Lahti/BIS team is wondrous at revealing every intricate detail in the score, especially with the shimmering strings and fluttering birdsong – like some magical trip into a half-lit forest. (There is a story of Sibelius and his habit of turning on the radio to full volume when his music was being played, so that he could hear every single note.)

The third movement poco vivace includes a quaint passage which I call a “march of the fairies” which is joyfully yet nobly delivered here. Throughout this performance there is beautifully luminous stringwork, including the harp. This is one of very few recordings I know of where the harp sits comfortably in the orchestra, playing as an orchestral harp sprinkling a field of sparkling stars over all, without screaming out for attention.

The Allegro molto finale is satisfyingly unified – all the different threads and moods are beautifully weaved together. The final moments are both heartwarming and heartbreaking to the core, with its gentle, serene yet infinitely sad ending, half yearning, half hymning. It is ephemerally fleeting and all the more sad, full of some fading distant sorrow, and yet smiling with contented resignation.

This performance broke and healed my soul – it is the most endearing Sixth I have ever heard. The CD is worth its price for this alone.

Sibelius in 1920

As for the Seventh Symphony (1924), I found the reading here rather cool, similar to the straight-faced account by Blomstedt on Decca. With the Lahti strings singing in a soft, glowing tone, there is a slow and noble buildup to the first appearance of the great trombone theme. The orchestral soundscape is deep and sweeping, like a great field of clouds surrounding the Alpine trombone peak. Like the harp in the Sixth, the trombone soloist stays within the orchestral picture without sticking out.

The central sections of the Symphony are performed relaxed – it is almost graceful. The second climax in C minor is similarly expansive and dark, but not really intense in the manner of Karajan. The buildup to the last appearance is the most magnificent, with a long drawn-out prelude. The 2nd and 3rd trombones weave into the principal’s solo with a powerful and grand choral effect. The ensuing section of bass rumblings is surprising quiet. The high strings soar impressively into the heights before introducing the horns; then a natural link to the quiescent flute solo that preceeds the final Largamente. And here, the Lahti’ans bring the Symphony to its grand conclusion with all due grandeur. The final bars are concisely uttered, neither drawn out nor clipped. Generally, I prefer it drawn out, but I guess this one makes its point.

A noble performance – not an emotional one, but certainly musically moulded, with the score cleanly held together with intelligent – not sterile – hands. Above all, the Lahti orchestra’s colours are breathtaking. To be honest, I found this performance very difficult to describe. As you all know, I’m totally biased towards the Lahti “Dream” Team and the Seventh is my favourite symphony – yet, I found this rendition hard to praise and also hard to fault. It is not a reading that really moves me, but neither can I seriously call it inadequate – the decision depends on your needs then.

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The great tone poem Tapiola (1925-6) is Sibelius’ last major symphonic work, depicting the forest essence of the Finnish God of the Forests, Tapio. Within five years of its premiere, it was already being called “the culminating point of [Sibelius’] entire creative activity, and a consummate masterpiece… Even if Sibelius had written nothing else this one work would be sufficient to entitle him to a place among the greatest masters of all time” (Cecil Gray).

There is an understatedly terrifying quality to the music – not in the stereotypical relentless, noisy, “avant garde” style, but in a deliberately quiet, brooding way, as of the Forest’s eyes watching your every move as you tread between the trunks, the winding roots of his children. Vänskä has a way with the quick phrases – very sudden and frightening flashes of terror. Yet he never dwells on these excessively, rearing the vision of Tapio only long enough for you to catch a good look – and shiver. His masterly moulding of tempi is very effective, every shift like the undulating breaths and unseen movements of the Forest God. In contrast to the (very sudden!) loud utterances of terror is the gloomy chill of the slowly breathing, mist-enshrouded sections.

Scandinavian orchestras are experts at creating the chilly, glowing, steely tone that fits the stark yet varied textures of this tone poem. (A notable exception is the Berlin Philharmonic in Karajan’s legendary and spine-tingling 1984 recording on DG 413-755 or 445-518.) It is like looking at the simple silhouette of a tree (canopy and trunk) – as shafts of light stream through the canopy, you realize the immense intricacy of the branches, the leaves, the grooves and cracks of the bark or even the invisible root system embedded in the ground.

At 14’16”, the orchestra suddenly disappears – the CD goes silent. I know many listeners will think either the disc has ended or “There goes BIS again, with their ridiculously extreme volume range.” This part of the score (between letters P and Q) is marked “dim(inuendo) possibile” and pp. I am now convinced that the inclusion of silence is deliberate. As in the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony, there is meaning in silence (but I’m not referring to any postmodernist idiocy regarding 4’33”). Those of you who might have walked into the middle of a forest alone will understand.

You suddenly stop and stand among all these ancient trees. Listen. Don’t make a single sound, just listen. The silence is at first deafening, but then you realize it isn’t that quiet. Listen carefully, and you may hear a distant bird calling out, or a rustle of leaves.

Listen on and you will hear the trickle of water somewhere, or the sound of a leaf falling, forest sprites weaving their magic secrets. Listen, and you will hear the sap of tree-blood coursing through the ancient wood. Now you can even hear the orchestra. You can hear the wooden limbs of trees moving ever so slowly, stretching with primeval strength toward the light.

Finally, you will hear Tapio himself breathe, his heart pulsating in the Earth beneath your feet. The living wood of the string instruments begin to sing of their true homeland, as they hymn the misty final chords in the serene glow of B major… Then you know… for you are in… Tapiola.

Also reviewed: Symphonies 1 & 4 | Symphonies 2 & 3 (BIS Lahti Cycle)

Early Sibelius is still Sibelius

Sibelius’ early works (pre-Kullervo/1892) remain largely unfamiliar to the public. The reason for this, and why the works in Ondine’s survey of Sibelius’ early chamber works include many world premiere recordings is because until 1982, the Sibelius family estate forbade the performance and publication of the music. (Sibelius himself, self-critical as always, would have been happy about this, I think). But now, the music has been donated to the Helsinki University Library, and has been mostly published by Fazer Music, Finland.
Continue reading Early Sibelius is still Sibelius

The Violin Concerto

“Caricatures are one of the signs of growing fame.” So speaks a leading Sibelius scholar of this cartoon of the composer, drawn in 1904, the year the Violin Concerto was born.

That there are two versions might hint at the shaky start it had, starting with its premiere(s). Sibelius had arranged for the former leader of the Helsinki Orchestra and then renowned virtuoso Willy Burmeister to premiere the concerto in March 1904. Burmeister followed the progress of the work attentively, showing much interest and confidence in its musical value. But Sibelius, broke as usual, was forced to hold the premiere concert one month before the aforementioned date, just to get some cash to tide over.  But perhaps, as a big name, Burmeister would probably have attracted more attention and therefore more ticket sales. But he was unavailable to travel to Finland. Continue reading The Violin Concerto

Symphonies 2 & 5 – Karajan Edition (1960, EMI)

Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
Symphony No.5 in E-flat major, op.82

The Philharmonia Orchestra
conducted by Herbert von Karajan

EMI Classics Karajan Edition CDM5 66599-2
[77:04] mid-price
Symphony No.2 recorded March 1960. No.5 recorded Sept 1960.

An original Flying Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

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Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) has always been rather special to me. You see, unfortunately (for me), he died the very year I discovered many of his greatest recordings, which contained music which has influenced me to this day. Since his death, the usual reactions occured and many collectors and critics alike came out to bash him. This posthumous bashing is pathetic and typical of the narrow-minded who can only appreciate art by listening to cynics and not the music itself. Every conductor has his good and bad recordings, bar none. For Karajan, when they were good, they were REALLY good.

Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan

Since the first batch of CDs from EMI’s Karajan Edition came out, I have been waiting for the Philharmonia recordings of the Sibelius symphonies – some of these, especially the Fourth, Seventh and Tapiola, are the stuff of legends, with the personal approval of the composer.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is a Karajan specialty, having recorded it four times. The 1965 recording for DG (Galleria 439 982-2) remains the best. This version opens well, and is just as fine until the flute spoils the picture with a strained note or two. The performance is slightly wanting in concentration for the first third of the movement, though the orchestra plays with marvelous skill throughout the symphony. The first big climax near the beginning does not quite have the swell and burst of light which distinguishes the Berlin 1965 recording. Nevertheless, the point where the two original movements were joined (around 8’46”) is beautifully executed by Karajan. In the monumental conclusion, the Philharmonia rises to the occasion with a glorious blaze of brass. The precision of their playing, along with the pulsating horns in the background, provide an exciting ending.

In this performance of the gentle Andante, the subtle ‘dancing’ pulse seems to be emphasised. I can almost feel a little waltz, a whiff of the anxiety of the Valse triste. In the finale, the Philharmonia horns ring out like bells in the “Swan Hymn”, an alternative to the softer “hymn” tone. When more than a little brash, the former approach is a little ugly and clumsy. But here it is carefully done – the horns are brought to the fore without drowning the strings or the majestic winds in the background. The great C major climax is certainly not the best I’ve heard – Karajan’s DG recording “blossoms” with greater excitement.

Karajan moulds the misterioso section with great atmosphere, misty and then chilly. Towards the end, the trumpets’ climax is earthshaking (in fact, it’s very loud – watch the volume!). Six orchestral chords end the Symphony – there are a huge number of ways to deliver this unique conclusion: Karajan takes them straight, determined rather than anticipating, with a purposefulness which reads differently from other versions. In fact, come to think of it, there is a sense of purposeful moulding which marks this version more than the Berlin 1965 recording – this is both a pro and a con. It makes the music move more efficiently, but at the same time reduces the naturalness with which it flows – works in some passages, but not others.

Karajan’s Philharmonia recording of Sibelius’ Second Symphony appears for the first time on CD here. With its majestic finale, one would think it’s completely suited to the lush “Karajan sound” – believe me it is. The first movement is an Allegretto landscape by turns calm and stormy. The moody second movement, a brooding D minor exploration of darkness. Karajan and the Philharmonia show excellent sense of pacing and contrast, responding with ample understanding of the music’s dramatic shifts of tension. The gleaming brass and huge explosions of timpani glower in tragic heroism. The strings are skilfully articulate and richly sonorous, strongly characterising the Allegretto as well as the F-sharp major theme of hope in the Andante sostenuto of the second movement, with one of the most beautifully sculpted endings I have ever heard. With pungent double-reeds, sharply trilling flutes, grand outpouring emotions and a heartwrenching brass cry, crescendo, the orchestra truly impresses.

The vivacissimo scherzo is tautly rendered with great discipline, purposefully driven without rushing. In the pastoral trio, the oboe solo sounds nasal (or “pungent”?), neither annoying nor sweet. Thankfully, this does not seem to spoil the performance. Both these sections are repeated, but in a symphonic masterstroke, Sibelius develops the second trio seamlessly into a great churning of swirling winds and long-breathed brass chords, while the strings, sweeping in anticipation the three-note ascending motif that has been resident in the symphony, drive the music into its famous finale.

Here, the earlier symphonic material joins in a majestic melody that would have sent many a Romantic composer packing home. This great outpouring of D major, with its grand string theme, is 100% Karajan’s cup of tea. In addition to richness of sound and expansiveness of expression, the trick to making this movement sound good has always been pacing. Some conductors go too fast and sound hurried (Rattle/EMI); others fast tempo but pace and control well (Berglund/EMI). Others good pace, but lethargic, no frisson at all (Davis/RCA, Davis/Philips). Some are sustained purely by this energy and tension, whatever their tempo (Kamu/DG, Maazel/Decca, especially Bernstein/Sony). In his 1980 recording (also for EMI but with the BPO), Karajan went very slow but it produced a reading of great cosmic energy. In this Philharmonia recording, the sonic limitations aside, he belongs to the few renditions (Jansons/EMI, Segerstam/Chandos) where everything is impressively held together, energized and beautifully paced.

Restlessly propelling the music, the Philharmonia perform with enormous conviction, pouring out tremendous gales of energy all the way to its heroically defiant final coda. Many, many performances fail at this point, because this triumphant conclusion is completely and unashamedly affirmative to the point of being “vulgar” – the word used by critic Virgil Thomson. In bad renditions, I cannot help but agree – it gets very sentimentalised and overblown. I am happy to say, however, that Karajan gets everything right here – the coda is splendidly constructed, the trumpets playing with the orchestra rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. This performance ranks among the very best versions that I now own. (Yes, I’m a nutcase: I have 16 versions. But then you should trust me even more…)

Karelia and Kuolema – Complete Music

Sibelius in 1899

There is a reason, of course, why the popular Karelia Suite is a “Suite”. Its origins go back to 1893, when the Viipuri Student Corporation at the Imperial Alexander University arranged a fund-raiser event in aid of education in the Viipuri province, in western Karelia, Finland. The idea was to foster Finnish culture at this border area near Russia. Finland then was still under the dominion of the Tsar, and to put it simply, the Finns didn’t like that. The entertainment soirée took place at the Town Hall on 13th November 1893 and its highlight was a series of tableaux depicting scenes from Karelian history. Think of them as theatrical stage scenes, with decorations, props and music, all provided by Finland’s best artists. Early MTV. Continue reading Karelia and Kuolema – Complete Music

「20th Century Composers: Jean Sibelius」 by Guy Rickards

J E A N · S I B E L I U S

Phaidon · 20TH CENTURY COMPOSERS Series · by GUY RICKARDS

PHAIDON PRESS Limited
ISBN-10: 0714847763 / ISBN-13: 978-0714847764

soft-hard cover, 240 pages, 22cm x 15.6cm
contains 100 b&w illustrations
This edition 23 Apr 2007. First published October 1997

An original review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

Reading this book was above all a learning experience. First it was very very sobering – for its lucid account of the financial/material excesses and terrible debts of Jean Sibelius, as well as his strained but somehow unbreakable relationship with his wife, Aino, to whom he was married for over 60 years.

And yet it subtly brings to light the essentially “nature” genius that is Finland’s greatest composer. Rickards does not talk so much about Sibelius’ music (which to the unfamiliar reader, would perhaps be a flaw in the book), but writes around them, showing the reader the overall environment which surrounds Sibelius and his works. The result is often like a sudden realization of something you already know. A stone looks different when it is seen in a desert, in a river, or among the mountains.

I was stirred by Rickard’s account of Sibelius’ struggle with the premiere of the Kullervo Symphony, of how the then 32-year old composer employed the “sheer force of his will” to unify the multi-cultural group of German musicians and a choir of Finns and Swedes that was to perform it. The churning maelstrom of the music seems to speak of this. In fact, Rickards, as in his careful account of Sibelius’ long struggle with the Fifth Symphony, makes you want to hear the music again. The author’s selection of quotations with regards to Sibelius’ compositional aesthetics really hit home. On the title-page of Chapter 6, aptly called “The Forging of Thor’s Hammer” (a reference to the Fifth’s “Swan Hymn”), the following quotation is printed:

“My symphonies were a terrible struggle. But now they are as they must be.”

 

Phaidon Press - Jean Sibelius by Guy Rickards
Original edition cover (1997)

Sibelius’ pursuit of organic unity, of “inner logic”, is unobtrusively taught to the reader. There are powerful descriptions of the composer’s near mystical kinship with nature. Sibelius recounted that at the moment he finished the final version of the Fifth Symphony (which he revised four times in four years), twelve white swans settled on the lake (outside his house), and then circled the house three times before flying off – spine-tingling stuff. Again, my impression is that Rickards lets the power of such imagery demonstrate itself. In the same way, Sibelius’ music demonstrates its musical material for itself.

Like the composer, the author of this book recognizes himself as a middleman. Sibelius once called himself the composer of a jigsaw puzzle that dropped from heaven. He only (re)constructed that which already existed. Likewise, Rickards is a faithful story-teller of Sibelius’ life, not seeming to do more than the pieces demanded. Both therefore act as the artist who allows the art to speak for itself.

Like this inner logic, I found myself connecting the things Rickards writes about. He makes a number of attempts to defend Sibelius’ rather strange habit of composing salon pieces next to symphonic masterpieces. One of these is the key quote regarding the Sixth Symphony, that each symphony is a “phase in one’s inner life.” In this, the inevitability of change (as excruciatingly shown via the composer’s intense self-criticism and rampant revision of his works) and the recognition of ‘permanency’ (“phase”) is somehow explained.

It’s just so difficult to explain. I’ve always known this quote, but after reading this book, I finally understood what it meant, and yet I am unable to explain it. Not surprisingly, this is the same with nature and with Sibelius’ music. Things you “understand” but cannot explain. And so, it was with genuine pleasure and high spirits that I read the penultimate sentence of the Epilogue:

“His music survived the vicissitudes of fashion across a century and has still been found to contain within it the seeds for the future…”

 

Something which I have always believed. It is something which I seem to know, to feel; in saying this, Rickards, whom I do not know, echoes my sentiments, and makes me feel that thing which I have always felt when conversing with fellow Sibelius fans: natural, unspoken kinship of the type which we infrequently realize we all share. This, ultimately, is the same relationship we embrace with Mother Nature.

Symphonies 1 & 4 – London SO/Davis (1994, RCA)

Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63

London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Sir Colin Davis

RCA Victor Red Seal (BMG Classics) 09026-68183
[77:40] full-price

by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

These are unusual couplings of two of Sibelius’ most different symphonies. Symphony No.1, composed in 1899, seems to take up the last reins of the Romantic century and cast with unimaginable force into the churning pools of the 20th; Symphony No.4, completed in 1911, was greeted with enigmatic silence at the end of its concert premiere, demonstrating how far the composer had traversed.

Sir Colin takes a slightly slower pace than Vänskä (on BIS – reviewed here) in the first movement, and he is more immediately convincing in the moulding of phrases: praise must go to the handling of the powerful jagged trumpet theme [track 1: 3’10” and 8’57”] – I have rarely heard it performed with such passion, drive and musical phrasing. Davis slows down as the trumpets soar, so that the triplet drops with great drama. These are the high points of the performance – beyond this, the reading is assured.

In the Andante, the opening string theme floats beautifully. Again the rendition is very fine if slightly wanting in momentum in the middle. The phrasing does get a bit rigid occasionally, but otherwise there are little technical complaints.

Sibelius photographed in 1889 What I don’t like about this performance is that it doesn’t offer anything new to say – in fact, it is a very conservative (meaning not trying to be revolutionary) interpretation, which adds considerably to its appeal to newcomers to the work.

Vänskä’s Scherzo is furious and sharp, even merciless. The RCA version is again more leisurely – at times the slower pace makes the music brim with power, but often it just seems too draggy for me. In the Finale for example, Sir Colin’s performance is again very traditional. The fast sections are effective but lacks the sense of rush found in say the Karajan or Iceland Symphony version. The slow sections work well, as in the yearning, angst-ridden slow melody near the end, bursting with emotion. It is here that the intensity of the London strings come across better than the cooler tones of the Lahti Symphony.

Indeed this is generally a very safe recommendation, whereas the more characterful Vänskä reading may shock some. Conversely, for an incorrigible nutcase like me, I don’t feel the urge to listen to this version since it has nothing much which is interpretatively interesting (except that first movement trumpet) or insightful. (I ask for too much, but I am the Nutcase).

Sir Colin’s performance of the Fourth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Philips (the whole cycle has been reissued on two pairs of Philips Duos, but suffers from bad recording and horrible brass braying) was one of the first of this symphony which finally “spoke” to me, after many years of not really “understanding” it.

His new recording is also good, although I find it less convincing than Vänskä’s on BIS. The RCA performance does not quite have the overall unity of the Lahti Symphony’s, and I thought perhaps the somewhat two-dimensional sound of the RCA recording (this is also evident in the rest of the cycle so far) may have contributed to it. The result is that sometimes there is a certain distracting “flatness” in the sound reproduction – all the instruments seem to come like a wall of sound. Sometimes this helps, as in the string sections where interesting textures are revealed. Detailed as it is, the RCA sound is not as “natural” as Vänskä’s, but it is still good nonetheless.

Both CDs are worth their price – but BIS has the far superior production, including the notes. If you’re not sure, then at least buy the RCA version, since BIS CDs are not readily available in Singapore (see below). Some may be encouraged by the fact that the former disc (Sir Colin’s) has been awarded a 1997 Gramophone Award in the Orchestral category.

Sibelius in his old age In the final movement of the Fourth, the opening is in a cheery, almost carefree manner, complete with glockenspiel parts (Sir Colin uses both the glockenspiel and tubular bells, as a solution to the controversy over the part’s instrumental allocation). In the midst of its development, the music seems to inevitably shift towards darkness, ending in chords of resignation, almost of exhaustion.

Sibelius (left) called his Fourth Symphony “a protest against present-day music. It has nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about it.” It is a revolutionary work of the highest intellectual skill fused with a natural kinship with the possibilities of tonality, both in terms of music and of the emotions. Written in the aftermath of a throat operation to remove a tumour, it has been said that in it Sibelius had struggled with the notion of mortality.

The musical material of the symphony is based primarily on the tritone (i.e. a three tone interval), known in medieval times as “The devil in music.” First heard in the growling, sombre opening motif (C-D-F#-E), it is developed concisely in a symphony of almost unrelenting economy. By this, musicologists mean that the “material” (e.g. a motif) is literally “grown” or argued (as in, one takes a topic and argues about it to convince someone) with precision and without anything unnecessary or extraneous (hence, you do not beat around the bush, or use unnecessary material that does not “fit” into the scheme of things.) In my own words, Sibelius can say more in 20 minutes than most composers in 2 hours.