The Lahti Sibelius Festival 2013

Lahti Sibelius Festival 2013

“Legends, a Tempest and an Oriental Feast at the Sibelius Festival”

So goes the webpage of the 14th International Sibelius Festival of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, which will run from 5 – 8 September 2013, at the Sibelius Hall in Lahti, Finland.

Without further ado, here is the programme:

Thursday, 5 September
Musik zu einer Scène
Pelléas et Mélisande, concert suite
Scène de Ballet
King Christian II, concert suite
Cortège

Friday, 6 September
Kuolema (Death), original score
The Tempest, original score

Saturday, 7 September
Karelia Overture
Wedding March from Die Sprache der Vögel (The Language of the Birds)
Belshazzar’s Feast, concert suite
Lemminkäinen Suite

The chamber/ensemble programme for Saturday and Sunday are not yet confirmed. The above info comes courtesy of Andrew Barnett of the United Kingdom Sibelius Society, authority 100% certified.

It is a very very colourful programme, featuring Sibelius from almost every known angle. Regrettably, I probably will not be able to attend this year. Limited finances is cause, period.

What shall I most miss? Without doubt, it will be the complete score of The Tempest, which contain some truly wonderful music. Music that is pleasantly sylvan, pastoral elegance, as well as fearsome orchestral storms and some of Sibelius’ advanced sounds. Among these, I am most emotionally attached to the absolute final piece in the Tempest music, the Ossia – Epilogue.  As I have written before in my post called Sibelius’ Farewell – Thoughts on Sibelius’ Silence and Dilemma, Prospero’s Art, and Shakespeare’s Final Play – at 1 minute, 20 seconds long, its resonant nostalgia is utterly heartbreaking, and breathtakingly brief.

If you don’t already own this (note that it is NOT part of The Tempest SUITES) in one form or another, allow me to show you this old YouTube contribution of mine:

 

For these 80 seconds of melancholia alone would I go for this year’s festival.

Please visit http://www.sinfonialahti.fi/sibelius/en_GB/sibelius for information on ticketing for the Lahti Sibelius Festival and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

 

Confessions of a Sibelius Champion

“Daddy, why do you like Sibelius so much?”

A month ago, my daughter, now age 10, asked me this simple question. Pause. I didn’t really know how to answer her. In truth if anyone older asked me, it would’ve been equally difficult to explain. And those of you who made the little mistake of asking me, I must let you know that it embarrasses me to go beyond five sentences to explain it. (I’ll buy a meal for those whom I subjected more than 10 sentences).

I suppose it would be just as difficult for any fan to explain exactly why he/she likes a certain composer. Sibelius himself reputedly avoided talking about his music, and even less so his compositional processes. I think essentially, like him, I would prefer to let the music speak for itself.

There are many other composers whose music I love – J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Dvořák, etc. But I only have this special relationship with Sibelius. I live over 9200 kilometres from Helsinki, from Sibelius, so to speak. I live in a tropical, Asian country – in terms of race, culture, language, climate, about as remote as it can be in relation to a Nordic country. Sometimes it seems a bit strange how this happened. Sometimes I can’t understand how come, and a part of me wants to ask, “Why was I chosen to do this?”

I have many times imagined what I would do and how I would feel when I finally reach Ainola. I have seen many photographs on the internet of Sibelius’ simple, bronze green grave. Soon I shall visit it. It will be the closest I will ever be to “meeting” him.

Many thoughts go through my head, and I find that finally, what I would say to him amounts to something emotionally closer to a confession than anything else.

Marshall Cavendish Great Composers Series – Sibelius (cassette version)

Awakening
I first truly awakened to Sibelius around 1990 or 1991 when I was aged around 18. I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember exactly how. Back then, I was following the fortnightly Marshall Cavendish series of “Great Composer” magazines, each came with a CD of the featured composer’s signature works (Right: the cassette version, which I bought off a second-hand store recently). I bought practically every issue, and I still have the magazines, although I have replaced most of the CDs with better recordings.

The blue-themed Sibelius issue came with a CD recording of Finlandia (naturally) and the Second Symphony, played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under George Szell. It was my first encounter with the symphony. I remember that afternoon, putting the CD on, and then going to my desk to work on something else. My back was to the hifi stereo set, and I let the music play pretty much as background music (if that is even possible with the Second Symphony). It was all new to me, and it sounded like a Romantic work, half-familiar, melodic, dramatic, spinning and swirling in ever increasing energy…

I raised my head from the table and turned around slowly. What is this?…. I dropped everything I was doing and my eyes opened wide as the finale began generating waves of D-major majesty. I listened intently to every note from the hifi set, as it drove Sibelius in ever mounting layers of magnificent defiance into my ears, into my soul.

The Flying Inkpot

The Flying Inkpot namecards from the late 1990s. Yes guys, I still have them.

In the 1990s, websites were born. In 1996 I joined a small group of university mates at the National University of Singapore who had set up a website for writing about the arts and reviewing local performances. These were the days of hand-coded webpages. The first GIF image had only appeared online a few years ago. We started simple. But we were driven by pure, altruistic passion – we were able writers, and we were eager to share. It was a time before social media, before web 2.0, even before mobile phones. It was the time of The Flying Inkpot (inkpot.com).

My editorial policy was simple:

  1. You write intelligently, but the layman must understand you. No pandering to lowest common denominator, no unapproachable musico-technobabble.
  2. There is no such thing as a “good review” or a “bad review” – only a well-written or a poorly written review.
  3. The VERY BEST reviews are the unfavourable reviews, written so well that even the musician criticized would agree.


Being the typical Type B that I was, I often championed the eclectic and those I deemed worthy of greater attention, underdogs and all. Among the likes of Janáček , Bantock, Hildegard von Bingen, Caldara and Jón Leifs, there stood the oeuvre of Jean Sibelius. But I had written so many reviews by the late 1990s that I felt that the Inkpot was becoming a bit of a monologue with my voice everywhere. On a whim, one day, instead of putting my name on the new Sibelius article, I put The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase.

Tongue firmly in cheek, I described him in the Inkpotters roll as:

The INKPOT SIBELIUS NUTCASE™ b.1132 Loves Hot Dogs
The Flying Inkpot is proud to be home to the World-Famous, World Premiere Recording of The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase. Having heard of the fabulous web machine from Singapore, the mysterious white-winged ISN hefted his 6-ton armour of Nordic Music review expertise and crossed the Bifröst bridge to the tropics, bringing with him several boxes of BIS CDs, his Nordic Sounds and Finnish Music Quarterly subscriptions, a copy of the Everyman edition of the Prose Edda, as well as The Kalevala. To date, he refuses to reveal his identity except to the closest of friends (all Inkpotters, heh). Naturally, he only uses Nokia handphones. Due to intense concentration while listening to multiple-layer, multi-pedal sonorities, he does not check his email very often.

And he began to write, and write, and write. Like some hero in disguise, I felt liberated and empowered by the fact that nobody knew it was me. I imagined I channeled some Nordic hero force and threw myself into championing Sibelius.

It was also the time of the BIS Sibelius Edition, I had already sworn by Neeme Järvi’s recordings (left), and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s cycle was beginning. In 1997, I had also begun reviewing Okko Kamu’s concerts with the Singapore Symphony, from the 1997 Oceanides to my first “live” hearing of the Seventh Symphony in 1999, and others.

During my time writing at the Inkpot, I never really expected much in terms of feedback. Even less for the many lesser-known composers and works I wrote about. Remember this was almost a decade before Facebook, before social media, before the interactive web we take for granted today. But we did have a primitive comments tool for articles, and people were commenting. To my humble surprise, many were heartfelt compliments. Many of these have been transplanted to dustofhue.com, including those of my most enduring Tapiola article.

Over the years it dawned on me that, the one thing about championing a “niche” composer like Sibelius is that you will occasionally find very passionate fellow supporters. This was deeply heartening, and instilled in me great faith.

Sibelius with his second daughter Ruth, in 1901.

The Silence of Yeah-I’m-A-Pa
In 2002 my first daughter was born. It was the beginning of an unexpected retirement from the Inkpot. It just happened. With a little regret, I left the reins with fellow writers (Derek Lim continues to do so at the Flyinginkpot.com) and over the next seven years I became preoccupied with a great many things unrelated to music. Though I never lost my love for Sibelius, for a long time my attention turned elsewhere.

In 2006 I was approached by The Philharmonic Orchestra, through Dr Chang Touliang‘s recommendation, to write for their Sibelius symphony cycle, Singapore’s first. Though I wasn’t too familiar with the orchestra, its music director, Mr Lim Yau, has always been one of my most admired Singaporean conductors. I could not refuse.

What followed was myself forcing my own rebirth: over the next year or so, I wrote the programme notes for the combinations of the First and Third Symphony, the Second and Fourth, and the last three symphonies. This was a revelatory experience, coming back to writing about Sibelius after some four, five years.

Dust of Hue
In 2009, my friend and then supervisor Olivier Amprimo repeatedly encouraged me to set up a blog. The time was the toddlerhood of social media, the blog engine had grown up. As someone who had been working so long on the web, I was quite keen. But what would I blog about? The answer came to me very quickly.

When I finally sat down one day (after more weeks of procrastination) and was signing up for my hosting services, I had to choose a domain name. Years of publishing online taught me that I needed something unique. I put in the first name that I thought of – and lo and behold, it was available. (Even in those days, securing a domain name you wanted wasn’t easy). Like I said before, very often, fate would always make the first one the one.

I began to republish my old Inkpot articles. I even discovered many comments on them that I never noticed before, such was the extent of my neglect. I am apologetic and thankful to all of you who left me comments between 2002 and 2007-ish. I wrote again, and I published the TPO notes online. In all, the experience, as Sibelius would put it in his experience writing the Fourth Symphony, “gave me strength and satisfaction” to do what I believed in.

So why me?

First, I am an organic thinker. I believe in rules and guidelines, yes, but I don’t believe in following them blindly. I don’t like hard mathematics, I don’t fancy step-by-step progression if I know of a way to “smoothen” them out and complete several steps in a multi-layered flow. I am a lousy multi-tasker but strangely I am remarkably good at making sense of the way multiple moving parts work together. I say “making sense”, I do not say “seeing” or describing.

I enjoy putting things in motion and relying on my faith and knowledge that “it’ll work” to let it work. Yes, this statistics-obsessed world hates my kind, as close to the truth as we may be. I detest counting and analyzing, especially over-analyzing things in order to find out how it works. I enjoy telling you the principles as to why it works, but I do not enjoy calculating it and turning it into a formula or a report book. I do not want to touch the butterfly’s wing and lose the dust of hue.

For these reasons and more, I think Sibelius’ music and philosophy is naturally kin to me.

There is one drawback – I have come so far in this inexplicable spiritual journey that I am now in a place where, if you do not understand Sibelius, you will never understand me completely. No one, not I, not my closest friends, least not my precious family, should take this lightly. It is a place in the heart where nature and humanity come together, where I hear Sibelius, where the dust of hue wings in the air, untouched, and is by nature, unexplainable.

So sweetheart, there’s your answer. Now you just need to grow up some more, understand why I do this and follow me to Finland one day. My first journey begins imminently. Ainola is my destination, Sibelius is my destiny.

The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 1 & 4 (BIS)

Sibelius demonstrates in the First Symphony a powerful sense of forward momentum. This is demonstrated with relentless energy by the Lahti Symphony (Sinfonia Lahti) in this recording, with razor sharp precision. This style brings out something that seemingly de-Romanticises the work, bringing out something more “modern”. There is a powerful sensation of gusts, of momentum in the reading. Whatever the case, their performance is one of amazing unity – at no point does the energy let up nor the movement falter. Phrasing suffers a bit under this hectic treatment, and listeners familiar with the work may find it doesn’t give the phrases much space for characterisation.

But Osmo Vänskä’s direction of the orchestra is acutely well-timed and executed, dramatic without being overblown. Couple this with the wide dynamic range and sonic sensitivity of the BIS recording, and you get an open arena for pin-point precision music-making. An example of this is the rush of anticipation towards the sudden subito piano at 4’22”. Even as the orchestra drops away, the reverberation it leaves behind creates a tense atmosphere for the four pizzicato chords – pure drama. Continue reading The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 1 & 4 (BIS)

Osmo Vänskä’s debut in Singapore… conducting Mahler

Illustration © André Carrilho.

There was a time when concert-goers in Singapore generally did not expect any big names to play with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).  If memory serves me right, this was about the case in the earlier 1990s when I first began attending SSO concerts and also when I first started writing for The Flying Inkpot circa 1996. Not surprisingly this was also pre-Esplanade.  Still, we were treated to some big names (pre-Esplanade), among whom I can vividly recall the wonderful human being that is cellist Yo-Yo Ma (SSO 12 Mar 1999) and that icy duchess of violinists, Anne-Sophie Mutter (SSO 3-4 Jun 1999).

Continue reading Osmo Vänskä’s debut in Singapore… conducting Mahler

Sometimes magnificence deserves a better name

In September 2009, in a fit of inspiration, I decided to make a video – make that music video – of one of my favourite unknown pieces of Sibelius, which up till then has never had any presence on Youtube.

Continue reading Sometimes magnificence deserves a better name

Sibelius: Symphony No.5 – Original 1915 and Final Versions (Lahti Sibelius Cycle)

Sibelius Symphony 5 BIS-863

Symphony No.5 in E flat major, op.82 (Original 1915* and final 1919 versions)
* WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING

Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä

BIS-CD-863
[67:32] full-price (released Aug 1997)

An original 1996 review by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

Like the disc of the two versions of the Violin Concerto (BIS-CD-500), this record couples the first and final (third) version of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. BIS’s re-release of the original 1915 Fifth Symphony (also available on BIS-CD-800) here makes the Vänskä cycle a unique treasure. Presumably, the manuscript has been returned and it is unlikely that the Sibelius family will allow it to be recorded again.

Sibelius in 1915
Sibelius in 1915

The original 1915 version is in many senses quieter and not as bold as the final. For example, the dawning horn-call of the opening is missing. Instead, you have a serene sky of soft horns where, almost tentatively, the woodwinds call out to each other. Even more significantly, the original Fifth is darker. I don’t mean to say that the music sounds less “tonal” or is more sad. Rather, the contrast between sections of light and darkness is much greater. If the final Fifth is “light/dawn”, and the Fourth Symphony is “dark/dusk”, then the original Fifth is a magical aurorae of wavering darkness and light, full of mystery. It encapsulates the organic-musical link between the “bleak” Fourth and the optimistic Fifth, a bridge that I had been looking for for years.

I have never understood why so many commentators have called the original Fifth startlingly different from the final. To me, the feeling of kinship between these “twins” was immediately recognizable. Yes, the technical differences are there, but it doesn’t feel drastic. Rather, you can see the way the original “grew” into the final version. The famous example of this is the original first two movements, which were fused together in the final.

 “Kaukola Ridge at Sunset” by Albert Ederfelt (1854-1905)
“Kaukola Ridge at Sunset” by Albert Ederfelt (1854-1905)

The original first movement, Tempo tranquillo assai, ends abruptly, with a mysterious pause and a sense of mildly playful expectation. The quiet way in which it departs is taken up by the second movement, Allegro commodo, which unobstrusively trickles in. The feeling is that the first movement never left, and the second was always there, unseen. Their combined presence is thus – natural.

Again, the ending of the original is quieter than the grand blaze of brass of the final version. The effect is this: in the former, one is given a glimpse of nature, and one feels awestruck by nature. The final version is more open, full-blooded, bursting – it is the immersion into the glory of nature herself.

The slow movement retains its child-like, pastoral mood in both versions. The primary difference is an alternative sequence of the material. The original is also 200 bars longer, with more frequent use of pizzicato. Let’s highlight the superb Lahti Symphony Orchestra here. The opening horns, their very sensitive timpanist and their achingly rich strings… ah… and their invocation of the subtlest sensations…

The original finale has its surprises too. During the “Swan Hymn”, the woodwind melody that soars above the horns is still in embryonic form. For those familiar with the work, you can only hear tantalizing wisps which tug at the memory. Its beauty remains breathtaking, perhaps even more so because it seems to be struggling in its birth. The themes blossom into the world, struck by the wonder of their own creation. As the orchestra pours into C major, there is a heartwrenching interjection by the trumpet [track 4, 2’34”]. Its brief dissonance is sharp, penetrating deep into the soul, almost twisting in tortured ecstasy.

Despite its ethereal floating chords and textures, the magical rushes of quiet wonder, some critics have called the original version “uneventful”, “rhythmically unfocused” and generally less forward in character. To me, these are elements of subtlety, and speak of Sibelius’ ability for economy of expression with maximum effect. The 1915 version is more “innocent”, questing for its final form. Unsatisfied with the original, Sibelius (left) wrote: “I wished to give my symphony another – more human – form. More down-to-earth, more vivid.”

You can hear him struggling with this in the conclusion of the finale. Whereas in the 1919 version, the five concluding chords are interspaced with silence, in the original the first four chords are uttered above a cloudscape of wind and string tremolo. The effect is of experiencing awe in the arms of nature. In the final version, more human and vivid as Sibelius suggests, the composer and symphony stands on its on, proclaiming itself as child of nature, and of nature herself. Hence, within the majesty of nature’s embrace, the “human” celebrates its place in the universe by uttering five existential shouts into the cosmic well of being.

The superb recording and performance aside, the recording of the original Fifth serves as an important reminder to us of the nature of the evolving artist and his dynamic art. If Sibelius’ music is essentially organic in nature, then the opportunity to hear the original Fifth showed me clearly the link between the Fourth and the Fifth. It is almost as if it was meant to be Symphony No.4. It also thus served to remind me of the illusion that differently numbered symphonies are separate entities. In fact, the entire symphonic cycle is a singular Nature in itself.

  * * * * *

Sibelius in 1918
Sibelius in 1918

As for the final 1919 version, what satisfies me about this performance is how unpretentious it is. An example of this is the “Swan Hymn” passage. Whereas some conductors follow the urge to slow down at the C major climax – which is fine to me if they do it well – Vänskä does not. On the contrary, there is a momentary rush as, with the slightest trembling push, the music pours irresistibly into the new key. It is like standing at the ridge of some mountain, eyes closed, feeling the wind rushing by. Suddenly, you open your eyes and behold – the first ray of sunlight piercing past the horizon.

Although the music has always inspired awe, here it exudes a sense of wonder. Throughout, Vänskä’s pacing of the music is wholly natural. It is allowed to breathe, organically shifting to fit the music. To try to describe the musical way he moulds the phrases is pointless – hear it for yourself. The transition between the original first two movements is unnoticeable. As it was meant to be.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra play with obvious familiarity with the music, as you might expect from a Finnish orchestra. To their credit, there is absolutely no sign of monotony or routineness. Instead, I hear kinship and intelligence. During the quiet, “misterioso” sections of the first and last movement, their empathy with the Nordic sound world is unique. The special colours that the Orchestra has repeatedly demonstrated is audible here.

And what better landscape then the pastoral tranquility of the slow movement, the Andante mosso. It is played with great warmth and feeling… almost a feeling of love. The brief sighing melody is made all the more sweet in this way. These are moments when the music breathes an air of contentedness, something which I think Sibelius sought, having struggled with the Symphony for so long.

Thus, we return to the finale. The conclusion of the 1919 version is in a sense the finale of Sibelius’ five-year struggle. In it is the culmination of not one symphony, but the apotheosis of the “three” Fifth Symphonies: the original 1915, the first revision of 1916 and the final 1919. Here you will hear the fulfilment of “Nature’s Mysticism and Life’s Angst! The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme: Legato in the trumpets!”

As if following the evolving path of the Symphony, struggling and growing its way into higher form, the Lahti Symphony present the work in a way I can only describe as “natural”. Nothing, breathtakingly nothing, is out of place. Everything – every tree leaf, every mountain rock, every snow crystal, every twinkle of starlight, even the floating clouds – is as it should be.

Vänskä spaces out the final five orchestral chords wide, but surprisingly, all five are “pronounced” differently and each makes its point. Anyway, I have increasingly come to appreciate the silent spaces between these chords, no matter their duration. “… [T]he pauses between the notes…[is] where the art resides.” – Artur Schnabel.

Within these spaces is the moment between birth and death. Just as there was a Fourth Symphony and a Fifth Symphony, and a period of “silence” between them, the original Fifth Symphony is – was – the unheard “silence” between them. Similarly, between the seven symphonies of Sibelius, there are “silences”. We can now hear what the silence was between the Fourth and the Fifth – and it is no longer a quiet void. It is the sound of a whole symphony blossoming into being. Within the silences therefore, resides the art of Jean Sibelius.

This recording of the 1915 version of the Fifth is also available coupled with the original version of En Saga (below, BIS-CD-800, released Feb 1996) and in the Sibelius Edition Vol. 12 (BIS-CD-1933-35)

Sibelius Symphony 5 En Saga BIS-800

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

* * * * *

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.

 * * * * *

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)

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