At the Singapore Symphony, 3 March 2012

SSO 3 Mar 2012 TicketBefore going to this concert, I scanned through my entire collection of CDs looking for an album by Marc-André Hamelin for him to autograph. I could not find a single one. I was thoroughly disgusted with myself.

During the days at the Flying Inkpot (or go to flyinginkpot.com for the new site), Mr Hamelin’s fame was expanding at high gear. His recordings with Hyperion Records, including works by many an unknown composer, astounded the music circles. It was a great time for exploring piano music. Mr Hamelin’s discography is still humongous – though I am not a big fan of piano music, I have immense respect for him for championing the lesser known. I was pretty sure I had something from his discography… didn’t I own the Alkan concerto at least? I shall have to put this down under the Possible List of CDs I Loaned Out Last Century That I Have No Hope of Getting Back.

Never mind. Again I confess, I didn’t really come for the concerto. Even the concert title/ticket makes no mention of it or who. Except we’re talking about Beethoven’s poetic Piano Concerto No.4, with no less than Marc-André Hamelin, one of the world’s living best.

And he played with masterful composure. Hamelin entered the stage with the quiet poise reserved only for the noblest of pianists. He brought wisdom to the piano, and instantly becalmed the audience with one single notion: this elegant concerto will be played as it should be. It was simply all right. The work, a gentle sister to the majestic “Emperor” Concerto, gave both pianist and orchestra ample opportunities to display subtlety of meditative touch and beauty of tone. The SSO strings gave wonderful performances, full of strength and delicacy, giving me great hope for the second half of the concert.

The concerto’s Andante struck me with its somewhat searching, meditative character. It was almost Sibelian in quality. The thoughtful, melancholic tone, the way melodies seemed incompletely formed, wandering, and that final, elegaic sigh – Hamelin evoked to perfection. While there was an inordinate amount of coughing and velcro-tearing during the first movement and perhaps halfway through the Andante, by the end of the latter, Hamelin had the entire hall in his kingly hold, and we stayed enraptured till the end of the finale. The word that kept appearing in my mind was “dignified”. Hamelin, the SSO and Okko Kamu delivered a performance that exuded dignity, a Beethovenian nobility upheld by assurance of skill.

During the intermission, I approached the SSO merchandise booth and picked up a copy of Hamelin’s recordings of his own piano compositions, including his 12 Études in all the minor keys. I felt that asking such a great pianist to simply autograph the programme booklet was not respectful enough. And in any case, I still love to hear new music, and here was a whole disc of it played by the composer. Standing in the middle of the queue, I discovered to my delight that the Hyperion disc had a clear tray, behind which was a photograph of Mr Hamelin.

Yes, that 2″x 1″ corner of cloudy weather was perfect for an autograph.

Autograph - Marc-André Hamelin

Like Mr Grosvenor before, Mr Hamelin was very amused by my request. He chuckled with a warm smile, and added an extra “(!)” after “Nutcase”. I told him how dignified his performance was, and we shared a warm handshake. Such a gentleman. A good memory, worth treasuring.

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A young lady reads about Sibelius while queuing for Hamelin's autograph
A young lady reads about Sibelius while queuing for Hamelin's autograph. I badly wanted to tell her that the last paragraph is inaccurate. There is much evidence that Sibelius was still composing into the late 1930s, and hadn't "abandoned composition in the 1920s", as the notes say.

My memory has not forgotten the fact that Okko Kamu is the conductor who granted my wish to hear the Seventh Symphony “live”, in 1999. While I did actually tell him my wish in person, sometime in the late 1990s, I suppose he would’ve done it anyway sooner or later, even if the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase didn’t exist. But otherwise, the SSO isn’t the first orchestra in Singapore to complete a cycle of the Sibelius Symphonies – that honour lies with The Philharmonic Orchestra, which did it under Lim Yau in 2007-2008 (of which this author wrote the programme notes).

Listening to the Seventh Symphony “live”, I sometimes want to slow the experience of time, just so I can savour it. In a “live” performance, there is no rewind button (and truthfully, trying to rewind the Seventh is a crime). Still, the best performances proceed with inexorable logic. It is a timeless 21 minutes of life, which feels neither long nor short, a chance to touch the face of symphonic divinity – you want it to last but you know it cannot.

Twenty minutes for a symphony is very short in the tradition of classical music. My wife texted me, as I was on my way home before 10pm, asking how come I was so early. My answer to her, besides asking what she wanted for supper, was simple.

Truth be told, I have held the expectation of coming to this concert for so many months, I found it a little hard to satisfy the anticipation – it was soon to be over.  The expectation must have been tremendous, you must think. But after last week’s so-so performance of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, I was not too hopeful – until I heard the Beethoven.

To my delight, the SSO opened Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony with full forest light and glittering sunshine. A font from which came a musical stream of pure cold spring water, as Sibelius might have put it. The orchestra reveled in the chamber-like quality of the music, by turns bright and spirited, or dimming as it invoked wisps of Tapiola. As a whole, the SSO sounded much, much better than it did last week – in fact, it sounded almost like a completely different orchestra. Strings and winds all played with unity and wonderful transparency. While I wished the harp scintillated a little more, otherwise the sounds the orchestra created were bright, airy, sparkling, as befits this, the most sylvan of Sibelius’ symphonies.

I was seated by the side of the hall during the first half with the concerto, but moved to the centre, near the back for the symphonies. I had the whole row to myself, as well as the devoted attention of a well-serviced air conditioning vent. Suitably cold and wintry, the spring waters of the Sixth gave way to the alpine magnificence of the Seventh.

As he did in 1999, Kamu led the orchestra with impressive command. I gasped as lines of the score appeared that I don’t recall hearing before – that’s the best thing about hearing works like this “live”. The SSO once again displayed remarkable transparency, particularly in the strings. While not 100% perfect, they did ample justice to the score. The horns, so rough last week in the Fifth, sounded amazing tonight. The musicians held the performance united, creating voluminous layers of sounds – bass pedals, soaring strings, fluttering woodwind. They held it all very well together. But ironically, it was in the three mighty trombone solos where their act of breeching from the unified layers to intone their majestic hymn seemed disruptive.

Perhaps, like in 1999, Kamu sought not to allow the three climaxes to become overwhelming. I found them slightly underwhelming, though not in an entirely bad way.  It just seemed a little too carefully toned down. The final bars, the symphony’s final invocation of infinity, flowed into being much too soon for me to savour. I was distracted by the bass trombone coming in a split second too early, and was trying to grasp what it meant – but there was no time: the final C major chord was here. Infinity came, wrought with timelessness and Sibelius commanded that the symphony end. Kamu swept his baton, the SSO surged in volume. I didn’t want it to end, I wanted it to last longer. But alas, the light blazed and dimmed out of existence, and I was cast out from the black field of stars, feeling all alone back on earth.

It was not a perfect performance, it was not the greatest I’ve heard, and I was left a little emotionally unsatisfied – but it was still a good performance. Good enough, that may I say, if you keep it this way, SSO, I think you are ready for Tapiola.

Jean and Aino: In the very trees of Ainola

When Jean Sibelius and Aino Järnefelt first chanced upon each other, their eyes locked for so long that she faltered. He was visiting her family flat in Helsinki and was providing, with her brother Armas, musical accompaniment to a pantomime being put up by the ladies of the house. So intense was Jean’s blue-eyed gaze that Aino could not go on with her part. Thus began the relationship of “the prettiest girl in Finland” and her greatest composer. Continue reading Jean and Aino: In the very trees of Ainola

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

Complete Sibelius Symphonies: Paavo Berglund’s 1972-74 Bournemouth Cycle

22 Jan 2013 – Good news – the late Paavo Berglund’s Bournemouth Sibelius Symphonies cycle, reviewed below, has been reissued by EMI. Available at Amazon and other fine stores.

27 Jan 2012 – Sadly, I must update this vintage review of mine with the news that Paavo Berglund passed away at home in Helsinki on 25 January 2012.

During the 1950s, Sibelius himself heard Berglund conduct some of his symphonies as well as the Rakastava Suite. The composer praised Berglund and told him how much he had enjoyed the performances. Besides leading the re-premiere of the Kullervo Symphony in 1972, Berglund’s work on the critical editions of the Seventh Symphony are hugely important. When he conducted the symphony with the Helsinki Philharmonic, he noticed that the musicians were playing from parts that Sibelius had personally corrected. Discrepancies existing in existing printed editions led him to embark on the necessary research to bring to print a new critical edition of the Seventh by Hansen in 1980. His recording of the Seventh Symphony with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra remains, in my opinion, one of the most revelatory experiences of this monumental work.  (It should be noted with much regret, however, that this cycle does not appear to be in circulation in the market. I.e. it is not available commercially.)

I’m saddened by the fact that, although I have lived during Mr Berglund’s lifetime, I did not have an opportunity to see him conduct. I would have dearly wished to give him a copy of this 12-year-old review. May the poetry of the Kalevala and the sounds of Finland follow him in restful peace.

Paavo Berglund - Photo by Clive BardaPaavo Berglund (1929 – 2012)
Photo by Clive Barda (desingel.de)

Grandmaster of Finnish Sibelian conductors Paavo Berglund (1929 – 2012) is comparatively not well-known among collectors of Sibelius records. And yet, he is not only instrumental in the editions to the scores, but has unique insights into the music which no other conductor has demonstrated, in all my listening experience for these works. Berglund’s recordings with the Bournemouth Symphony, with whom he is Conductor Emeritus, have been unavailable for so long that they have virtually reached mythical status.

Continue reading Complete Sibelius Symphonies: Paavo Berglund’s 1972-74 Bournemouth Cycle

The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 6 & 7 and Tapiola (BIS)

Symphony No.6 in D minor, op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, op.105
Tapiola, op.112

Lahti Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Osmo Vänskä

BIS Records BIS-CD-864 (Details)
[68:16] full-price

An original Inkpot review by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

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At last, the final installment of the Lahti SO and Osmo Vänskä’s 1996-1997 BIS Sibelius Symphonies cycle. Appropriately, it ends with the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and the Symphonic Poem Tapiola – in many ways Sibelius’ “last symphony”.

Here we have a bright and winsomely beautiful performance of the Sixth Symphony (1923), as in the first movement, full of fairy lightness and glittering sunlight. Indeed, the Lahti players bring much light to a D minor symphony, something which I found very heartwarming. The second movement opens nostalgically, with distinctively flavoured orchestral colours despite the economy of the score. As usual, the Lahti/BIS team is wondrous at revealing every intricate detail in the score, especially with the shimmering strings and fluttering birdsong – like some magical trip into a half-lit forest. (There is a story of Sibelius and his habit of turning on the radio to full volume when his music was being played, so that he could hear every single note.)

The third movement poco vivace includes a quaint passage which I call a “march of the fairies” which is joyfully yet nobly delivered here. Throughout this performance there is beautifully luminous stringwork, including the harp. This is one of very few recordings I know of where the harp sits comfortably in the orchestra, playing as an orchestral harp sprinkling a field of sparkling stars over all, without screaming out for attention.

The Allegro molto finale is satisfyingly unified – all the different threads and moods are beautifully weaved together. The final moments are both heartwarming and heartbreaking to the core, with its gentle, serene yet infinitely sad ending, half yearning, half hymning. It is ephemerally fleeting and all the more sad, full of some fading distant sorrow, and yet smiling with contented resignation.

This performance broke and healed my soul – it is the most endearing Sixth I have ever heard. The CD is worth its price for this alone.

Sibelius in 1920

As for the Seventh Symphony (1924), I found the reading here rather cool, similar to the straight-faced account by Blomstedt on Decca. With the Lahti strings singing in a soft, glowing tone, there is a slow and noble buildup to the first appearance of the great trombone theme. The orchestral soundscape is deep and sweeping, like a great field of clouds surrounding the Alpine trombone peak. Like the harp in the Sixth, the trombone soloist stays within the orchestral picture without sticking out.

The central sections of the Symphony are performed relaxed – it is almost graceful. The second climax in C minor is similarly expansive and dark, but not really intense in the manner of Karajan. The buildup to the last appearance is the most magnificent, with a long drawn-out prelude. The 2nd and 3rd trombones weave into the principal’s solo with a powerful and grand choral effect. The ensuing section of bass rumblings is surprising quiet. The high strings soar impressively into the heights before introducing the horns; then a natural link to the quiescent flute solo that preceeds the final Largamente. And here, the Lahti’ans bring the Symphony to its grand conclusion with all due grandeur. The final bars are concisely uttered, neither drawn out nor clipped. Generally, I prefer it drawn out, but I guess this one makes its point.

A noble performance – not an emotional one, but certainly musically moulded, with the score cleanly held together with intelligent – not sterile – hands. Above all, the Lahti orchestra’s colours are breathtaking. To be honest, I found this performance very difficult to describe. As you all know, I’m totally biased towards the Lahti “Dream” Team and the Seventh is my favourite symphony – yet, I found this rendition hard to praise and also hard to fault. It is not a reading that really moves me, but neither can I seriously call it inadequate – the decision depends on your needs then.

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The great tone poem Tapiola (1925-6) is Sibelius’ last major symphonic work, depicting the forest essence of the Finnish God of the Forests, Tapio. Within five years of its premiere, it was already being called “the culminating point of [Sibelius’] entire creative activity, and a consummate masterpiece… Even if Sibelius had written nothing else this one work would be sufficient to entitle him to a place among the greatest masters of all time” (Cecil Gray).

There is an understatedly terrifying quality to the music – not in the stereotypical relentless, noisy, “avant garde” style, but in a deliberately quiet, brooding way, as of the Forest’s eyes watching your every move as you tread between the trunks, the winding roots of his children. Vänskä has a way with the quick phrases – very sudden and frightening flashes of terror. Yet he never dwells on these excessively, rearing the vision of Tapio only long enough for you to catch a good look – and shiver. His masterly moulding of tempi is very effective, every shift like the undulating breaths and unseen movements of the Forest God. In contrast to the (very sudden!) loud utterances of terror is the gloomy chill of the slowly breathing, mist-enshrouded sections.

Scandinavian orchestras are experts at creating the chilly, glowing, steely tone that fits the stark yet varied textures of this tone poem. (A notable exception is the Berlin Philharmonic in Karajan’s legendary and spine-tingling 1984 recording on DG 413-755 or 445-518.) It is like looking at the simple silhouette of a tree (canopy and trunk) – as shafts of light stream through the canopy, you realize the immense intricacy of the branches, the leaves, the grooves and cracks of the bark or even the invisible root system embedded in the ground.

At 14’16”, the orchestra suddenly disappears – the CD goes silent. I know many listeners will think either the disc has ended or “There goes BIS again, with their ridiculously extreme volume range.” This part of the score (between letters P and Q) is marked “dim(inuendo) possibile” and pp. I am now convinced that the inclusion of silence is deliberate. As in the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony, there is meaning in silence (but I’m not referring to any postmodernist idiocy regarding 4’33”). Those of you who might have walked into the middle of a forest alone will understand.

You suddenly stop and stand among all these ancient trees. Listen. Don’t make a single sound, just listen. The silence is at first deafening, but then you realize it isn’t that quiet. Listen carefully, and you may hear a distant bird calling out, or a rustle of leaves.

Listen on and you will hear the trickle of water somewhere, or the sound of a leaf falling, forest sprites weaving their magic secrets. Listen, and you will hear the sap of tree-blood coursing through the ancient wood. Now you can even hear the orchestra. You can hear the wooden limbs of trees moving ever so slowly, stretching with primeval strength toward the light.

Finally, you will hear Tapio himself breathe, his heart pulsating in the Earth beneath your feet. The living wood of the string instruments begin to sing of their true homeland, as they hymn the misty final chords in the serene glow of B major… Then you know… for you are in… Tapiola.

Also reviewed: Symphonies 1 & 4 | Symphonies 2 & 3 (BIS Lahti Cycle)

Sibelius: The Seventh Symphony

ONE MORNING at 2 am, in the quiet of the night, I put on a CD of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and shut off all the lights in my room. What proceeded is a wholly personal experience which I do not ask you to understand; I only ask that you listen. Deep in the darkness, at the height of Sibelius’ last completed symphony, I was delivered into a mountainous haven of musical ecstasy. So utterly absorbed was I that I thought I saw pinpoints of light in my room. Perhaps I was dreaming, half-asleep, maybe even delirious. In any case, I have always imagined these were stars before my eyes, and have called them as such.

Continue reading Sibelius: The Seventh Symphony

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