The Chagrin of a Nationalist Romantic – Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies

An Essay on Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 3rd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius, performed on 4 Oct 2007, which is reviewed here.

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To the casual listener, Jean Sibelius is popular as a “Romantic Nationalist” composer; to the serious listener, he is a unique master symphonist. To both, Sibelius is one of Nature’s greatest musical avatars.

Mosaic of Sibelius made of stamps, for the Finnish Stamp Jubilee Exhibition

Sibelius once described his Third Symphony as “thoughts crystallizing out of chaos” – his music drawing order out of unshaped chaos. This idea does not sound new. But Sibelius did not seem to mean that the chaos is completely random.

He also once commented that his compositional process was like having “mosaic pieces” thrown down from heaven with which he had to put back together. In this sense, the chaos is not completely without meaning. It exists in a disconnected state which has not yet come into full being. Like seeds waiting to be grown. Like molecules waiting to crystallize. Sibelius believed his task was to grasp these unformed potentials, and utter them in a form meaningful to their origin.

Written in 1898-1899, Sibelius’ First Symphony is often associated with Romantic music of the Tchaikovskian vein, venting Finnish Nationalist emotion. With its large-scale scoring (including tuba and harp), outpouring of memorable melody, melancholic song, full-blooded brass exhortations and urgent defiance, this association is not surprising in the historical context of the Finns’ struggle for independence .

The audiences loved it. The First made a name for Sibelius outside Finland. But admirers also placed the label “Romantic Nationalist” on composer and symphony.

Sibelius himself never ascribed any program to any of his symphonies. To him they were essays in symphonic art, no more and no less. Coupled with his extremely self-critical attitude and his desire to be recognized as an accomplished composer, the “just another late Romantic Nationalist” label did not sit well with him.

Thus, by the time of the Third Symphony, his symphonic path had visibly changed. Continue reading The Chagrin of a Nationalist Romantic – Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies

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)

Ashkenazy conducts Sibelius’s First (1981)

Many listeners have acknowledged the more “Slavic”, warmer tone of Ashkenazy’s Decca cycle – no problem for the First Symphony!  The opening clarinet solo is already molded with personality, and indeed this reading of the Symphony bursts forth with brilliance and purpose – life. Continue reading Ashkenazy conducts Sibelius’s First (1981)

Barbirolli conducts Sibelius’s First (1966)

This is a short review from about 1999 that I’m republishing as I revive and freshen up my original Inktroduction to Sibelius’s First Symphony. Originally available as a single CD with the Third Symphony, released under EMI’s Classics for Pleasure budget line in 1996, the recording is now available as part of a “Sibelius Edition” of all the stereo recordings Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) made for EMI with the Hallé Orchestra. All good men and women, these. Details of the recordings at the bottom. Let’s do the review first: Continue reading Barbirolli conducts Sibelius’s First (1966)

Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 1 & 3 (Naxos)

Symphony No.1 in E minor, op.39 (Inktroduction)
Symphony No.3 in C major, op.52

Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554102
[67:35] budget-price

From the volcanic land of Björk Naxos has launched its new (the second after Adrian Leaper’s, also good) cycle of Sibelius Symphonies. For a company not well-known for repeat recordings of the same music, I can only say this bodes well for the composer – and what a smashing start this is!

Led by their new and able Finnish director Petri Sakari, the Iceland Symphony (who have previously recorded some Sibelius for Chandos) provide very tightly etched and sharply responsive account of the music, combining precision which never becomes rigid, with strength of conviction and energy. The result is readings which feel confident and highly charged but never over-indulges, as heard in the first and third movements of the Romantically-inclined Symphony No.1.
Continue reading Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 1 & 3 (Naxos)

Sibelius: The First Symphony

Photo: Winter Landscape - Baar, by Nobsta

The common and easily jumped-to conclusion about Sibelius’ First Symphony is that it is a “Romantic”, “Nationalist” and/or “patriotic” work. There is indeed some element of truth in using these convenient terms, but it would be unjustified to claim that that is all to this symphony.

Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Järnefelt
Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Järnefelt

Sibelius vehemently denied any extra-musical meaning to all his symphonies, and yet his listeners – first and foremost his fellow Finns – saw everything from forests and mountains to swirling winds and sweeping snowscapes to the being of Finnish-ness in his music. In the final analysis, the composer also admitted that it is not incorrect to find, “let us say, a feeling of nature [in his music]… . [Let that be said], as long as we have it clear within ourselves, we do not become a part of the music’s innermost sound and sense through analysis …”

This compromise is perhaps representative of his struggle to unite the torrent of human feeling he felt (for nature, his home, land among other things) and the “profound inner logic” which propelled his music’s search for symphonic perfection. Continue reading Sibelius: The First Symphony