Remembering Grandfather Sibelius

She is wielding a scythe. Satu Jalas, Sibelius’s granddaughter by his second youngest daughter Margareta, cuts through the grass on the grounds of Ainola as she leads us to the area known as “The Temple” . Trudging through the summer grass behind her with me is UK Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett. Following a remark I made earlier about locating this rather sacred spot, Andrew revealed that he himself has never visited the location and would love to – so he asked Satu if she knew…

Finland2014-08-29satu

It is August 29, 2014, and I am back in Finland for the second time. It is my great honour and privilege to be brought to Ainola on my first day – right after landing in Vantaa airport at 6.35am – to witness a recording session later in the evening with Mdm Satu Jalas and Folke Gräsbeck, pianist and friend. It will happen after public visiting hours and go late into the night. For all this and more, I am eternally grateful to Andrew.

But right now,  it’s about 4pm and Satu has just arrived at Ainola. She still treats it like a home, describes Andrew – she would regularly open up cupboards to show us various things, and sit on the couches and arrange things.  “This should not be here,” she says, pointing to an object or two inside Ainola, before moving it to where it would have been when she was a child. And indeed she should treat it like a home, for she did come here as the granddaughter of Jean and Aino Sibelius.

And this granddaughter is now wielding a 4-foot scythe, which she procured from the shed, and is cutting through the grass in front of us, clearing our way to The Temple (see this pdf map from Ainola for its location). I feel a little awkward walking behind her, 30 years her junior and not doing it myself (I offered of course!). When we reach the spot, on the northern end of Ainola, I am a little disappointed to realize that Sibelius’s tree root chair is no longer there. What happened to it? I asked. No one knows, she says. It’s disappeared. It’s returned to nature, perhaps.

Sibelius in tree-root chair 1940s by Santeri Levas
Sibelius in his tree-root chair. Photo from the 1940s by Santeri Levas courtesy of the Finnish Museum of Photography

“He loved to pile up the pillows and have his grandchildren surround him.  He would ask us to tell him all our dreams.” Satu recounts with great fondness later that evening after the recordings are done. “Grandfather was a sweet nice man”, she states in his defence. “Not like the sour face in photos. He was never angry.” Her own face is filled with a frown of disappointment, trying to express a certain injustice in the way many of Jean Sibelius’s photos seem to show the composer as a severe, dour  figure, made even more unapproachable in black and white. But Satu’s face lights up as she describes how he loved giving his grandchildren great big hugs. She demonstrates this, opening her arms wide – very wide. Indeed it looked as if one were being embraced by a huge loving papa bear, massive and pure in its love.

Grandfather Sibelius once gave out chocolate to all his grandchildren. But that day, little Satu was not well and unable to eat the sweet treats. She describes how his face filled with great pity for her. He went away for “a long, long time” before coming back with some candies for her. But her Grandmother, Satu recounts with amusement, quietly warned her not to eat the candies as they are very old. “I took them anyway!” Satu laughs.

The following week, I met Mdm Satu again on the last day of the Lahti Sibelius Festival. As we left the hall at the end of the chamber recital featuring Sibelius’s music for violin and piano, I asked her, “What do you feel when you hear your grandfather’s music?” She paused ever so slightly and says, “I feel…. something inside.” Which would seem to the reader like an obvious sentiment. But what you cannot see is her facial expression. She is trying to describe a powerful nostalgia which you and I cannot fully comprehend. It is the music of her grandfather, that one Jean Sibelius, who is not just a famous composer, but family. Nothing more, nothing less. She seems to feel, if I may attempt an interpretation, something akin to pride but closer to love. It is a powerful connection, an almost overwhelming nostalgia.

“I want to keep all the memories and feelings of my grandfather.” Satu says as we walk under the Forest Hall at Sibeliustalo, underneath the constellations of 8 December 1865. She has unconsciously answered a different question, albeit just as personal. “When I was five years old, ” she continues with her flow of memories, “I understood immediately the Fourth Symphony. I was just five.” She recalls how on one trip to visit Ainola,  she had the Fourth Symphony playing in her head while on the train. She arrived at Ainola in tears. When Grandfather found out the reason, he was again filled with sympathy for her, and the result (of course) was another loving embrace.

“Finland must find its music and soul.” Satu now says, thinking of her grandfather’s fateful role in Finnish music. “We had to ‘push out’ the Russian, Slavic sound.” And Finland did. Jean Sibelius did, forever changing the meaning of Finnish music.

“Your grandfather has completely changed my life.” Now it is my turn to say to her, on that first day on 29th August. I tried to express in words just how much Jean Sibelius has influenced my life, the way I think,  my place in the world.  We stood reminiscing in the sunlight of the forest floor where the tree-root chair used to be. At these words, I saw a layer of formality and emotional distance instantly fall away from Satu, as she breaks into a warm smile and her own sympathetic “Awwwww…” for me. And then, suddenly, I am in her embrace. In The Temple at Ainola, in the arms of a Sibelius.

Satu Jalas and me.
Satu Jalas and me, at The Temple, Ainola.

 

[I’ve tried to reproduce as accurately as possible  Mdm Satu’s words but some paraphrasing may have taken place, which I hope the reader will forgive.]

More on Satu Jalas:

 

At the Singapore Symphony, 24 Feb 2012

I ran for the Fourth Symphony. I sprinted for the tritone. I was running late, simply because I stopped for dinner right after knocking off from office, before heading to the Esplanade Concert Hall, and the meal took much longer than expected. Burned my tongue.

7pm and I was at Queenstown Station. On the way I scanned for cabs. On a Friday night? Nah, little chance, and no guarantee I won’t be caught in a jam. The rail map said I needed 13 minutes to reach City Hall Station. Then, I figured I needed at least 10 minutes to reach the concert hall.  I reached City Hall at 715pm. Not bad. But I still ran.  8 months of gym training coming into use.

Turned out, I had more than 5 minutes to spare, and by the time the grim tritone of the Fourth Symphony began, I had settled into my seat to hear the SSO attempt one of the most difficult Sibelius symphonies to pull off on an unsuspecting audience.  I think it’s fair to say most of the crowd (the hall was about half filled, I estimate) came for the Schumann Piano Concerto with Benjamin Grosvenor, and perhaps the popular Sibelius Fifth. That’s why the Fourth opens the concert. It’s so that you can’t run away.

But the SSO did not pull it off well. I don’t blame them. Dr Chang Tou Liang helpfully recalled for me – as I chatted with him at the head of the queue for  Grosvenor’s autographs – that the last time the SSO attempted the Fourth was circa 2000, “with Andrei Gavrilov, the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto, remember?” Dr Chang, you’ve got a really good memory, and this helped me find this old Inkpot review of the SSO concert from 28 July 2000.

Looking back, it sounds as if they actually did better back then. This night’s performance felt unconvincing, I had the feeling that the SSO could not feel for the work. As a result, it felt a little dis-unified, lacking that musical integration so crucial to Sibelius. There were some very good moments – the cello solos, the big tutti sections, but things like the interplay between various lines and phrases lacked organic unity. They were not seamless enough. As he did in 2000, Kamu led the orchestra without a break between the first and second movements, as well as between the third and final movements – this was just as effective this night as it was back then.

As the symphony drew to a close, I listened and watched how the SSO dealt with the “logical collapse” that makes up the ending of the Fourth. Alas, this too was not pulled off convincingly. It lacked that sense of helpless dissipation, that makes me feel utterly quiet and desolate, even a little grim, when the Fourth ends. While I applaud the SSO for trying – to play the Fourth is no mean feat – I feel that 12 years ought to have made an improvement. Till next time, then.

At the conclusion of the Schumann Concerto (see below)

The concert ended with Sibelius’ Fifth. This was a much better affair, performance-wise, that hiccup in the woodwinds during the opening “sunrise” notwithstanding. My main problem was with the transparency of the orchestra again, not unlike that in the Fourth. There were times when even the strings overwhelmed the brass, and many passages where I could not hear more than one musical line. That’s not the way a Sibelian orchestral score should sound, even at fortissimo. In the famous “Swan Hymn”, the horns sounded rough instead of pure. In fact, overall the sound of the orchestra in the hall was much muddier than I expected.

Despite these there were a number of well-played sections as far as pacing was concerned – the transition between the original first and second movements was very well-handled. Kamu directed in a tempo somewhat slower than I’m used to, and the orchestra followed exactly, smoothly. Their final test, the final chords were delivered with ample conviction.

I didn’t come for the concerto nor the young talented pianist who played them, I confess. But it was certainly the highlight. Benjamin Grosvenor, all 19 years of him, played with the eloquent mastery of a mature musician. His command of the piano is complete and unwavering, the instrument willingly obeying every one of his calls for sparkling clarity and lyric runs. Hunched over the keyboard, he played the Schumann with consummate ease and conviction, and the SSO provided beautiful support. Bravo to this young man. I would rather not call him a prodigy, I would simply call him a great pianist.

He chuckled when I asked him to do me a favour and sign his autograph to the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase (I did this once before with Jennifer Koh). He asked me if this was some kind of internet nickname, and I explained that yeah I’ve been championing the composer online for some time, that I confess I’d come for the symphonies but I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. “Nutcase – really?”, he confirmed with a smile before writing. Later I could not help but realize that when I began championing Sibelius’ music online around the late 1990s, Mr Grosvenor was just 6 years old.  I wish him the best.

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

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)

Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 4 & 5 (Naxos)

Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Symphony No.5 in E flat major, op.82

Iceland Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554377 (Details)
[69:19] budget-price

An original Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

* * * * *

This is the fourth disc of Sibelius from Petri Sakari and the Iceland Symphony, on Naxos. This Nordic team has so far shown a penchant for daring playing, confident sweep and cutting, finely etched music-making. The results have been exemplary, though not perfect. Sometimes, the “go for it!” helter-skelter style does not pause enough to smell the roses, but at other times, the same high energy treatment produces startlingly impressive results. There are, for example, many passages of great beauty to be found in these recordings, including here, and also many admirable and lively bursts of energetic playing.

Sibelius as painted around 1911
Sibelius as painted around 1911, in between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

In the Fourth Symphony here, we get to a good start, with a long, brooding introduction of the well-known tritonic theme. Sakari and the Icelanders can be quite the experts in sustaining long musical arguments – here in the Fourth (and later in the first movement of the Fifth) they do so. The solo cello has a rather bright tone, which is an uncommon occurrence with performances of this work. It is very evocative, like the last shafts of sunlight at twilight. The first movement is given a cool and concentrated performance, with the sense of unity well-sustained. On a more abstract level, my impression is that this performance has more “light” than “dark” – it isn’t quite as solemn as some other interpretations.

Sakari handles shifts of moods in the Allegro molto vivace with good sense, which also makes his transition between the second and third movements seamless. Subtlety to detail and underlying drama ensures also that the ending of this Allegro is as abrupt as it is enigmatic. Osmo Vänskä’s account on BIS is however even more fluid in feeling, much more fine – rather like a sheet of ice next to the Icelander’s jagged landscape.

This fabulously icy sound of the Icelanders is employed to great effect, and as before, the brass of this orchestra is superb (try ending of first movement of No.5). Overall, Sakari’s hand over pacing and tempo changes is very sensitive and unfussy. His direction is clean, interpretations satisfying. Although sometimes the playing sounds a bit detached, there is drama, anxiety, light and darkness, hope and ominosity – all that the Fourth expresses.

I greatly enjoyed the magnificent performance of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony – it has great flow, excellent stringwork – the detailed, unfussy ostinato also heard in the Fourth, ample orchestral body and visionary splendour displayed in the original second movement.

The slow movement is played with ample detail, but sounds just a little bit detached. The phrasing is just a little bit too rigid, lacking a sort of “lyric curvaceousness”. The interpretation does not “smile” enough… it is just somewhat too serious. In fact, come to think of it, it might be fair enough to say that the movement is too much like the way the Fourth is played. Technically though, this is not a bad reading – there are many details to be heard.

What is not satisfactory is the finale – it is quite literally unimpressive. The introduction sounds tired, compared to other versions, and though the pacing of the horns in the “Swan Hymn” is good, they sound just a tad weary. The difficult punctuating phrase from the double-basses sound very ugly here (granted, this isn’t the only performance where this is a flaw). Sakari plays down and does not exploit the majestic modulation into C major in the famous climax of the “Swan Hymn” – there is neither the profuse surging energy of Vänskä’s reading, the Olympian splendour of Segerstam’s Chandos recording or the noble grace of Berglund on Royal Classics. When the passage is over, one does not feel as if the modulation has taken place at all. When one compares this to more joyous, magnificent interpretations – it is difficult to recommend this Fifth, if only because the “Swan Hymn” is such a crucial point with collectors of this symphony. Thankfully, the conclusion is magnificent, bringing back the atmosphere and orchestral power that this team displayed in the first movement. The final five hammer blows are very nicely spaced out.

In conclusion – it is a little unfortunate that of the seven movements on this disc, the most popular one is the least satisfactorily performed. As I have suggested, if you are specifically looking for a good version of the Fifth (in particular of the finale), I do not recommend this. But I like this Fourth – the icy, and somehow uniquely “light” approach and evocative performance is very interesting. Add to this the powerful delivery of various parts of the Fifth, this disc remains recommendable.

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.