Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sibelius' symphonies

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the twenty-second installment, I re-examine the symphonies by Finnish grandmaster Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957), skipping the early Kullervo, which has been termed a choral symphony, but is nowadays usually identified as a symphonic poem.

Symphony 1 in E minor op39 (1899)
My version: Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy (Decca, 1986, 39 min)
My version: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (EMI, 1986, 37 min)
Sibelius was 35 when he composed his first, and it shows - this is an accomplished work by a composer with considerable experience. The opening movement centers on an energetic recurring theme, and an almost Viennese beautiful melody. The following Andante has a sadness ranging from protest to resignation, which in some ways harks back to Tchaikovsky's Pathetique of 6 years earlier. The confident scherzo is built throughout around a main theme where timpani and brass are dominating. The final movement once more introduces some beautiful melodic fragments before ending in a very effective way - with pizzicato whisper after the climax. All in all, one of the better first symphonies in history, and well worth the "important" label - close to essential actually.

Symphony 2 in D major op43 (1901)
My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (EMI, 1981, 47 min)
My version: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (EMI, 1986, 40 min)
The popular second symphony, perhaps one of the last romantic masterpieces, opens with an Adagietto, in which beautiful pastoral moments are followed by burst of intensities. The turbulence is increased in the Andante whereas the pastoral feelings are replaced by a brief dirge-like theme played on the bassoon. This movement gives a feeling of struggle, be it internally or externally. The short, partially energetic partially pensive, scherzo leads without pause to the final, a heroic movement that has made many Finns identify this symphony with their fight for independence from Russia. The main theme is among the most memorable that he produced. All in all, this is definitely an essential symphony, on par with the other popular one, the fifth.

Symphony 3 in C major op52 (1907)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy (Decca, 1983, 29 min)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (EMI, 1987, 29 min)
Perhaps the first in which his strong individual voice comes through. The first movement starts quietly and ends heroically - fans of Howard Shore's music for Jackson's LOTR trilogy will recognize this movement as one of the sources that he used (without credit)... The second movement is an Andantino full of grace and melancholy. The final, for me the weakest movement, echoes previous themes and introduces new ones in a continuous drive - before it ends with a whisper rather than a bang. I ranked this symphony as important, but it is close to essential.

Symphony 4 in A minor op63 (1911)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N. Jarvi (BIS, 1984, 38 min)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (EMI, 1984, 34 min)
A bleak work, echoing the uncertainties in his life following a cancer operation. In the dramatic first movement, there are more echoes of Mahler than elsewhere in Sibelius' oeuvre. An almost circus-like recurring melody fragment in the short scherzo cannot really lift the general feeling of despair, which gets amplified in the subdued but impressive slow movement. The finale opens brightly enough with melodic fragments, accentuated with bells ringing, but eventually the lethargic feeling returns and the symphony ends with an unresolved feeling. Perhaps his least immediately accessible symphony, but well worth hearing repeatedly.

Symphony 5 in E flat major op82 (1921)
My version: Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy (Decca, 1981, 31 min)
My version: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (EMI, 1986, 30 min)
After a magical introduction dominated by the horns, Sibelius' most popular symphony gets under way slowly but surely with recurring lilting motives from the strings, countered by lower wood winds. The slower first half then gives way to a scherzo like second half. The subdued Andante second movement is summarized excellently in Wikipedia: "a set of variations on a theme of the flute heard at the beginning on the strings, played pizzicato with chirping woodwinds to create a cheerful feeling". The final starts with a strings race, which eventually gives way to a swan call inspired horn motif that has been used in many pop songs, most notably First Class' hit Beach baby. Both ideas are further developed, until a heroic end - which uniquely consists of six chords each with a second of silence in-between. An essential symphony, even though I prefer the 4th over it.

Symphony 6 in D minor op104 (1923)
My version: Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy (Decca, 1984, 28 min)
My version: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (EMI, 1986, 31 min)
More than any of his other symphonies, the sixth reminds us why Sibelius is one of the greatest composers of tone poems of all time. The cold beauty of the Nordic countries, devoid of human life, gets converted into a convincing sound world, both in the opening Allegro and the second Allegretto movement. A short fitting scherzo precedes the energetic finale, which has the best themes by far. All in all, this is a very worthwhile and truly Sibelian symphony, but in the end lacks better thematic material throughout to rate it higher than important.

Symphony 7 in C major op105 (1924)
My version: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N. Jarvi (BIS, 1985, 21 min)
My version: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (EMI, 1984, 21 min)
His final published symphony (he destroyed the extensive sketches for the eighth) is a condensed one movement work, by far the shortest in his repertoire. In many ways it has the feeling of a symphonic poem, be it that one has to make up the story as the music plays along - and indeed, it turns out that Sibelius used fragments of an unpublished symphonic poem throughout this composition. For me, this is an elusive work, full of beautiful sounds whenever one pays full attention, but admittedly the mind (at least my mind) does tend to wander off occasionally. After a more concentrated listening session, I still rank it as important though - even though for me it is by a small margin the weakest of the seven.

Hors concours: None.
Essential: Symphonies 2,4,5.
Important: Symphonies 1,3,6,7
Good to have: None
Not required: None
Avoid: None