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.

And the sounds are godlike – Last Three Symphonies of Sibelius

An Essay on Sibelius’ final three symphonies, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 3rd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius, performed on 27 July 2008, which is reviewed here.

© 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.
Jean Sibelius Square, Toronto, Canada
Photo of Jean Sibelius Square, Toronto by nyxie.

On the evening of September 20th, 1957, just a little over 50 years ago, Jean Sibelius died, aged 91. At the time, not far away in the capital of Finland, the Helsinki Orchestra and Sir Malcolm Sargent were performing the Fifth Symphony.

Written during the time of World War I, one might have expected such a work to reflect the times. But no, the symphony that Sibelius created was the complete opposite: life-affirming, noble, brimming with humanity in the face of nature’s majesty.

The final version was completed in 1919. It begins with a serene horn call at dawn, heralded by birdsong on woodwind. As the mood of anticipation unfolds, the developing material pours into a swinging string theme that precedes a trumpet call echoing through the mountains. Though sometimes misty and ominous, the music always retains a certain “human” feeling. We seem aware of our presence in the landscape.

Continue reading And the sounds are godlike – Last Three Symphonies of Sibelius

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.

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

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…)

Sibelius and the Fifth Symphony

ON THE EVENING of the 20th of September 1957, Jean Sibelius died. He was aged 91.

Not far away in the capital of Finland, the Helsinki Orchestra, under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent, was performing the composer’s Fifth Symphony at the exact time of the composer’s death.

I have constantly wondered about this little piece of history, almost sentimentally romantic, yet heroic in its appropriateness. Heroic because while the composer was struggling with the Symphony between 1914 and 1919, the world was plunged into its first great modern war. Continue reading Sibelius and the Fifth Symphony