The sounds we’re not meant to hear: is this Sibelius’ 8th?

News is emerging in the English language world of music that significant parts of Sibelius’ Eighth Symphony may have been truly found. Not only that, but they’ve been played and recorded. My friend KH alerted me via Facebook, quoting the English version of the report by Finnish music critic Vesa Sirén, who ponders if they have indeed found “the Holy Grail of Finnish classical music”. Words that I’ve used myself to describe this lost work, a work so shrouded in legend and awe that it has indeed attained the status of “Even if we found it, its light would be impossible to behold”.  The article was written for the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper some two weeks ago – gosh, I can’t believe it takes two weeks for the information to travel out to the English-speaking world. This story really begins in 1982, when the Sibelius family handed a massive collection of manuscripts to the Helsinki University and the National Library of Finland. It took the Sibelius scholar Kari Kilpeläinen the next decade or so to complete the cataloging of these manuscripts.

  Among this body of material are a good many unidentified drafts dating from the time Sibelius was supposed to be working on the Eighth Symphony, but there has been no prima facie evidence to link them to the work itself. One page does admittedly bear the words “Sinfonia VIII commincio”, suggesting the beginning of the work, but the reverse of the sheet of music paper contains nothing more than a sketch for a few bars of orchestral music. Another page contains drafts for the Seventh Symphony and the cryptic “VIII” attached to a particular fragment of melody. Basically, that was all that was assumed to exist.

“Is this the sound of Sibelius’ lost Eighth Symphony?” By Vesa Sirén

Subsequently, Sibelius scholar Nors Josephson, while examining a large collection of unidentified manuscripts in the collection, concluded that fragments of the Eighth do survive. Enough, he argued in a 2004 paper, to reconstruct the entire symphony! This point fills me not with joy, but with fear. It may seem a little strange for a Sibelius advocate to say, but I’ve always believed Sibelius destroyed the Eighth Symphony for good reasons. It was not good enough, I always argue. He could not write a symphony better than the Seventh or Tapiola, so he consigned it to the flames of the fireplace at Ainola. In doing so, he meant that these are sounds we are not meant to hear. It may even pain or offend him if we did. I know the counter-argument: Sibelius was enormously self-critical, perhaps too much so. He was critical even of works we may deem to be exemplary today, like the original Fifth Symphony. Would the Eighth Symphony have been a work as remarkable as we imagine it might be, even if Sibelius rejected it? Yet another Sibelius scholar,  Timo Virtanen, editor-in-chief of the critical edition of the collected works of Jean Sibelius – does not quite agree with Josephson’s conclusion.  “It is not possible to patch together Sibelius’s entire symphony from these sketches”, he argues. And I am inclined to agree.  In Virtanen’s view, Josephson may have simply jumped to too far a conclusion. Siren writes:

      In Virtanen’s view, Josephson drew some interesting, bold, and ultimately probably also false conclusions from what were basically only a few isolated instrumental lines for a couple of bars of music. At the same time, Josephson did not take any account of sketches found in another file of archived documents that hinted at orchestration. “These [other] sketches could well point us towards the Eighth Symphony, and they indicate that Sibelius had taken off in a quite startling direction”, says Virtanen.

 “Is this the sound of Sibelius’ lost Eighth Symphony?” By Vesa Sirén

Words like these, “Sibelius had taken off in quite a startling direction” are to me, however, spine-tingling.

Possible score of Sibelius Eighth Symphony
Is this Sibelius’ 8th?

Screen from video at Helsingin Sanomat.

Virtanen assembled “from the later sketches and drafts a fragment that Sibelius has worked up for orchestration and a couple of other drafts with hints at an orchestral treatment” and copied them out. He then brought them to  Sakari Oramo, Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and to John Storgårds at the Helsinki Philharmonic.

“Phew. This is pretty heady stuff” , says a dazed Oramo. “It stops right there just as Aino [Sibelius] has called from the kitchen to tell Janne to come and eat”, he jokes. But then he tries out the harmonies on the piano and his mood grows altogether more serious. “There is a sense of searching and exhaustion in here. The material has an archaic dissonance to it.”

 “Is this the sound of Sibelius’ lost Eighth Symphony?” By Vesa Sirén

The turn in mood is telling. Even Oramo has sensed something familiar, spine-tinglingly familiar – exactly the sort of feeling you get when you hear the unique sounds of a Sibelian orchestral score.  In Sibelius’ music, it is sometimes not the tune that marks it as Sibelian, but the peculiar combination of tone and harmonies – layers of being, whiffs of the organic, and yes, that sense of searching, and sometimes of inevitable collapse and exhaustion as the music winds down. It is conductor John Storgårds who brings us a little closer. When the drafts are presented to him, he agrees to give them a try with the Helsinki Philharmonic.

The clip begins with an interview by Siren with Virtanen. The musical experiment begins around 2:07.  Siren later described the almost fearful atmosphere inside the hall of the Musiikkitalo  as the fragments were played. The orchestra’s press officer burst into tears.

The Helsinki Philharmonic
The Helsinki Philharmonic playing the drafts

Screen from video at Helsingin Sanomat.

The sound is indeed familiar, then startling. I hear, very soon, Tapiola-resque woodwind – it is as if the Seventh has fused with Tapiola, both light and darkness together. It is definitely the sound of Sibelius. The second fragment has sounds from the Sixth Symphony. Next fragment… First? Woodwind figures from the Fifth?

“Whoo. Chills going up and down the spine there”, confesses John Storgårds after it is all over. “You can recognise the composer’s late style from the fragments. But particularly in that opening passage the harmonies are so wild and the music so exciting that I’d really love to know how he went on with this.”

 “Is this the sound of Sibelius’ lost Eighth Symphony?” By Vesa Sirén

Indeed, that first passage is the most astonishing. and definitely sounds like something Sibelius might have written anytime between 1920 and 1940. I feel as if we are amateur astronomers looking through a powerful telescope in the backyard, staring into infinite space, looking for a fabled alien planet, and one particular twinkling light seems to beckon us. Is this it? But it is too far away, too far away in time, too far away for details and verification. We can only stare through the telescope of best educated guesses, and wonder whether we are staring at truth or merely hope. Either way, we know the field of stars we are watching, scrutinizing the tapestry of constellations,  is home to the seven symphonies. Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty god, and wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

Kullervo – 1972 and 1985 Recordings by Berglund

Kullervo, op.7
recorded in 1985.
State Academic Male Choir of the Estonian S.S.R. · Helsinki University Male Choir · Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND

EMI Matrix CDM5 65080-2
[71:46] mid-price. Libretto included.

Kullervo, op.7

Helsinki University Male Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND
Also includes: The Oceanides, Karelia Suite, Scènes historiques – Suite No.1, Tapiola, Finlandia, Serenades Nos.1 & 2.

EMI Forte CZS5 74200-2
[147:55] budget-price. Libretto NOT included.

At long last, EMI has reissued the legendary world-premiere recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony, made in 1970 by Sibelius scholar and conductor Paavo Berglund. Though the music was composed and first performed in 1892, over one hundred years ago, Sibelius withdrew it from the world, and only allowed the third movement to be performed in celebration of the centenary of the publication of the Kalevala in 1935, when the composer himself was 60 years of age.

Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund
Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund

Since then, Sibelius’ choral symphony was not performed in its entirety until 1958, the year after his death. It was only finally recorded for the first time ever in November 1970. Paavo Berglund (left) recorded it again in June 1985 with EMI Records, in a much-acclaimed performance. But it is this 1970 world-premiere which many Sibelius fans have been waiting for.

Now, in what seems to be a double-dose of celebration for these fans, EMI has not only released John Barbirolli’s beautiful cycle of the symphonies, but also this – I must confess at having scoffed and cursed at EMI’s many strange policies regarding the circulation of their recordings. For now, I must issue my heartfelt thanks.

So how does this “new”, older, Kullervo compare to the 1985 recording? As with Berglund’s Bournemouth cycle of the symphonies , it is at least revelatory, to say the least. The performance sounds matured and well-prepared – which is a major point considering that this is the world-premiere recording of a rarely-encountered piece of music at that time. On first impression, it is also clear that the 1985 recording is much better, with finer details and crisper colours; the strings are richer, the brass mellower, the rhythms and figures sharper.

In terms of interpretation, both versions exhibit very fine stature, with the later one sounding more sure of itself, not surprisingly – as if it has grown up. This is not to say that the earlier recording is unsure, but rather it has a greater impression of exploration – which is exactly what the classical recording world was doing then with Kullervo.

And what an impression it must have received – 78 years after its debut performance, Berglund’s reading does more than ample justice to this majestic score. The impact of the unraveling introduction, the tragic-heroic brass outcries, the pathos of the singers, the chanting chorus – surely, it is not hard to imagine the impact which Sibelius wrought on the Finnish world of music during his time.

The heart of the work, Kullervo and his Sister, receives fine performances on both recordings. The choral entry on both are fascinating. The later 1985 version has more kick, more energetic drive, sharper-toned strings, even more heroic atmosphere. But listening to the 1970 version, I find it refreshing in its certain youthfulness, its smooth delivery backed – on both recordings – by the foot-tapping pulse of the bass line. At the same time, the relatively inferior 1970 recording only brings into sharp contrast the details of the 1985 version. In any case, what satisfies me about Berglund’s way with the work is how he brings so much underlying energy to the music, despite its fairly moderate pace and the simplicity of the devices Sibelius used to constuct the music. If like me, you should grow to like this music, I assure you, you will be memorising the first six lines of the chorus in no time – such is the heroic momentum of the Helsinki University Male Choir (and company).

The baritone employed in 1985, Jorma Hynninen, is a highly experienced Kullervo. With a much darker voice, his rendition is somewhat more “Wagnerian” in style, certainly more dramatic and dynamic. However, Usko Viitanen’s contribution to the world-premiere is quite excellent, sung with much emotional power and sincerity. His is a more noble Kullervo, perhaps, more meditative. His anguish at the realisation of his incestuous deed has a tragic dignity; but in Hyninnen, the sense of horror mixed with guilt is stronger, the emotions of the story more visceral.

The soprano part of Kullervo isn’t exactly a particularly “visual” experience, consisting quite a bit of “wandering”. It’s emotional message is either underplayed or subtle, depending on your perspective. The main chunk, in which the sister reveals that her father is the same as Kullervo’s, simultaneously describes both her contented youth and her admission of guilt – The part is rather hard to pull off satisfactorily if only because Sibelius’ musical-emotional dynamics here are rather subtle.

Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901)

Of the sopranos on record, Raili Kostia gives an adequate reading in 1970. But Eeva-Lilsa Saarinen’s interpretation in 1985 is more multi-dimensional, depicting the scenes more distinctly. In the passage where Kullervo’s sister defiantly rejects him in fast, semi-stuttering fashion (“Päästa pois minua tästä”), Saarinen’s jittery reading is more natural than Kostia’s rather more rigid, almost straight-staccato rendition.

One interesting difference is in the final chords – the earlier version is actually much more angry and defiant of tone, which I find much more appropriate to Berglund’s smoother, less-sharp 1985 interpretation. In any case, both orchestras in both records are absolutely splendid. However, in terms of vocal soloists, the 1985 version is superior.

Berglund’s 1970 rendition of the fourth movement, Kullervo goes to War, is absolutely spectacular stuff – the volatile energy and pure living imagery the Bournemouth musicians conjure is a splendour to behold – watch out for the brass, how they fanfare at each other with pinpoint staccato and confidence; or the collective chirps of the woodwinds, the fluttering winds – this so much makes me want to ask Sibelius what he was picturing in his mind when he wrote this. This is an all-out amazing journey all Sibelians must hear, right up to the shattering trumpet blasts of the heroic conclusion (don’t miss that!). The best Kullervo goes to War I’ve ever heard.

By contrast the later version of this movement is taken slower – 10’01” versus 8’52”. The pace is thus slower, and the old recording even matches the newer one in sound quality. Without a doubt, in this case, the earlier 1970 performance wins hands down.

Kullerov, Kalervo’s offspring,
Grasped the sharpened sword he carried,
Looked upon the sword and turned it.
And he questioned it and asked it,
And he asked the sword’s opinion,
If it was willing to slay him. …

“Wherefore at my heart’s desire
Should I not thy flesh devour,
And drink up thy blood so evil?
I who guiltless flesh have eaten,
Drank the blood of those who sinned not?”

The Kalevala
excerpts from Cantos 35 & 36

The finale, Kullervo’s Death, is spectacularly well-performed in both recordings. The 1970 version, however, has more emotional depth – I find myself sympathising with it more even as in the past I have sympathised most with Berglund’s 1985 version. It seems as if, as we follow the two recordings towards the end of the music, Berglund’s 1970 performance shows more and more of its true mettle.

In the final analysis – the 1985 version is a better recording, has better soloists; but the 1970 version has stronger conclusions; in both cases, orchestral support is beyond reproach – these are two fantastic orchestras at work here, and Berglund deserves to have both recordings lauded.