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

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.