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.

Strength and Satisfaction – Sibelius’ Second & Fourth Symphonies

An Essay on Sibelius’ Second and Fourth Symphonies. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2nd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius (Northern Exposure), performed on 30 March 2008, which is reviewed here by Dr Chang Tou Liang.

© All Rights Reserved (Text). Permission is NOT granted to reproduce any of the following text without authorization from the author. Please see Copy/Write for more information.
 

Sibelius around 1910

Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony is often related to a difficult period in his life – not only was he in a financial crisis, but the threat of cancer hung over his life. Many commentators describe the bleak, dark music of the Fourth as a reflection of impending doom.

While there is no doubt that such thoughts would find a place in his art, it is important to understand that the Fourth is not about doom – rather, the composer must have thought this was his final chance to set down his symphonic ideals once and for all, before he loses his life.  Sibelius’s (and his critics’) mixed feelings about his preceding three symphonies, and the threat of death propelled him from the world of his first three symphonies, all the way to the absolute core of his symphonic thinking. Continue reading Strength and Satisfaction – Sibelius’ Second & Fourth Symphonies

Icelandic Sibelius – Symphony No.2 & Tempest Suite No.1 (Naxos)

Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
The Tempest: Suite No.1, op.109/2

Iceland Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554266 (Details)
[68:08] budget-price

An original Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

What I like about this reading of the Second Symphony is its tightly driven energy, the no-nonsense blazing brass of the first movement, coupled with confidence and power. Sakari has an admirable measure of the surge and the ebb, the flow and the outburst of the symphony. The Andante has no lack of atmosphere; the opening pizzicato “walk” is not as mysterious as some other accounts, but makes up for it with the aforementioned sense of confidence, and attention to detail without being too deliberate. I enjoyed the slow unveiling of the woodwind episodes after the brassy tumult, the chilly rock-hewned power of the Icelandic brass (what gorgeous trumpets – and listen for their diminuendi), and the solemn-heroic build towards the end.

The pacing of the Vivacissimo is excellent, neither too fast or slow. At 6:17 it is on the long side, but I enjoyed the slick drama that the Icelanders churn from the score. Even more impressive is the bridging to the finale – very well done indeed, without a wisp of too much hesitation or too little breathtaking anticipation, the Icelanders slip into the rising theme with calm nobility. The trombones pulsate nicely, the woodwind pedals are leveled just right in the background, while the trumpets thrust their fanfare with flawless magnificence in both their big appearances. The horns deserve mention too for making good their support.

The swirling storm that leads to the final coda is not exactly the most powerful, most stormy one I’ve heard. Though I am impressed by the work put in by the woodwinds at the top of the score, the overall picture is slightly wanting in that final ounce of relentlessness, of that feeling of heroic defiance that gives this work such a patriotic ring. Nevertheless, this is not a bad reading at all. In fact, the coda itself is satisfyingly majestic, with brass rising even higher and louder than before, blazing above each other in triumph. The full D major glory of the final chords are savoured with great relish.

* * * * *

The coupling of the First Suite from The Tempest is a little odd and unusual, the work coming from the end of Sibelius’ known orchestral output, whereas the symphony is among his first. It makes a great contrast, especially the magical aura of The Oak Tree (and Ariel’s Song), to which the chilly sounds of the Icelanders do good justice to, if not as sorcerous as Segerstam’s account on Ondine.

The Humoresque is ably done, though I’ve heard more liquid playing from other clarinettists. The orchestra sings Caliban’s Song with ample colour and drama, loudmouthed and lurid (It’s quite hard to get this piece wrong, so far in my listening experience); and is then repeated gruesomely in the middle of the Scène. I greatly enjoyed the pulse and flow of this performance of The Harvesters. The little details are really nice – the quiet snare drum, the field of floating strings, the harp, flute – all add up to a very picturesque tone painting.

Strangely, in The Storm, the recording (or is it the conductor?) gives great prominence to the brass, somewhat downplaying the turbulence of the strings. At other times, the lower brass (as in that rising series of chords) is drowned. In all, a committed performance, but sonically the result is too blocky, too opaque. The Naxos sound isn’t really very transparent, which may be at fault.

My recent “live” encounter with some of this music has made me realise the extent that contrast plays a part in The Tempest. One particular example is the Intrada-Berceuse. Here, I think Sakari doesn’t quite put in enough thrust into the shattering blows of the Intrada, though it is not ineffective. The gentle Berceuse itself receives a fine interpretation, with strings sounding timid and restrained, almost emasculated.

Overall, excellent performances of the symphony and most of the Suite and a worthy successor to the previous release of Symphonies Nos.1 and 3 (reviewed here). If you need a recording of No.2, you can safely invest in this, which comes with the bonus of The Tempest (if incomplete). But if the latter interests you more than the former, go for the Ondine/Segerstam and the complete theatre score recorded on BIS (detailed here).

The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 2 & 3 (BIS)

BIS-CD-862Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
Symphony No.3 in C major, op.52

Lahti Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Osmo Vänskä

BIS-CD-862
[67:32] full-price

by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

Let’s get to it. This is not the best Symphony No.2 (1901-2) I’ve heard at all. If Sibelius can be called Romantic, the strongest traces are probably found in the first two symphonies and much of the Violin Concerto. In his recording of the First Symphony, Vänskä produced one of the most magnificent performances I’ve ever heard on record. It is thus somewhat disappointing for me that the energy of that performance is mostly missing from this Second.

Vänskä chooses a relatively reticent mode, playing down the gargantuan Romanticism that the Second is capable of. Perhaps what he is doing is emphasizing the structural unity instead, which he succeeds in the nicely held-together first movement, the Allegretto.

Not that the Romanticism is missing – it is there, but the expression of contrast is somehow unsuccessful. There is a one-dimensionality to this performance despite the – as usual – vivid orchestral detail. For example, the Andante slow movement is somewhat un-dark. It lacks that sense of impending doom, the sensation of dark clouds gathering. At worst, the players sound a little…. bored?

Even the Vivacissimo, with its opening rushes of strings, begins as a mere trickle, warming up only around the second trio into the Finale. The majestic Finale is performed impressively – all the pacing and handling of the opening lines are well done. The tempo is well chosen and the moulding of the music refined and attentive. Maybe too attentive – I feel as if Vänskä is paying too much deliberate attention this time. Personally, I would rather the performers all let go and play their heart out in this unashamedly Romantic/emotional/patriotic finale. The second half of the finale, after the recap of the opening theme, is the most moving. Churning impressively into the Finale‘s final (and potentially embarrassing) trumpet chorale – I suddenly realized Vänskä’s treatment might work here… and yes, like the sun shining through the clouds, the triumphant hymn is gathered without overindulgence, but with glorious nobility.

Sibelius’ Second Symphony is quite a tough nut to crack (then again, all seven are). I remember a time when a group of friends and I went around searching for the “perfect Second”, our attention largely centred on the finale. Opinions differed of course, though we were most impressed with Mariss Jansons’ on EMI (to my utter disbelief and disappointment, he no longer seems to intend to finish that cycle, having also recorded the First, the Third and Fifth). If you want a version with gleaming contrast and enormous power, try Segerstam’s on Chandos. Budget: Ormandy on Sony Essential Classics.

The Third Symphony (1904-7) is apparently still Sibelius’ least popular, something which I don’t understand because I feel it possesses one of his most beautiful symphonic slow movements.

The clarity of its classically inspired architecture is of course much opportunity for Vänskä’s superb orchestra. Their performance of the opening Allegro moderato is very fine indeed – listen for the interplay of woodwind and strings.

This performance of the Third is one of a very rare breed where the Andantino con moto is longer than the Allegro moderato (11’12” and 10’15” respectively). No matter, for Vänskä’s performance is very beautiful, played with feeling. Listening to the wistful woodwind thirds, passing their melancholia to the strings, there is a feeling of slowly moving energy, sometimes flowing, sometimes draining. It is like the waters of a lake gently lapping on a quiet shore. The winds sigh, the grasses sway, all adding to the sense of beautifully melting sorrow.

The strangely, softly booming bass lines and timpani add to the star-lit darkness of the work. Listen to the quiet tolling effect of the timpani at the beginning as well – magical. As the movement draws towards its end, the tone and music broadens, becoming more and more beautiful. The orchestral detail breathtakingly depicts the dusky landscape. And then everything ends, quite suddenly, with just the slightest hint of tragedy.

The last movement of the Third is a scherzo and finale fused together. Vänskä’s handling of the transition from the “scherzo” part into the “finale” is seamless and convincing. The movement as a whole is very well done, very impressively unified, with many fine contributions from the winds. The Third is said to end abruptly, as if there was meant to be more – but in fact everything necessary has been done. Vänskä, to my ears, actually manages to make the work sound “finished”.

If you like the Third played with great excitement, I highly recommend Lorin Maazel’s very immediate account on Sony (SK61963). For a classic performance of the beautiful slow movement, go for Rattle’s mid-priced disc on EMI (CDM7 64120-2), also coupled with the Second (not good though).

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

* * * * *

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…)