little over a year ago I
reviewed an 8-CD box from EMI which contained all the symphonies
and most of the orchestral works of Sibelius under the baton of
Paavo Berglund, and I praised the "unhurried, yet never dragging,
style of interpretation which seems to find the tempi from within
the music and to allow events to unfold with absolute inevitability,
never pushing onwards, never holding back". I concluded that
"on account of this unfailing contact with the musicís natural,
organic growth Ö. Berglundís interpretations are those most in
tune with the role Sibelius is coming to play in the 21st Century".
Bernstein, we know, was a more interventionist type of interpreter,
tending to make a personal voyage of discovery out of every single
performance. Will his sheer force of personality stand in the
way of this austerely objective composer? Well, not so fast, please.
It is true that Bernstein is one of those conductors whose work
can be recognised blindfold, but this did not stem, at least until
his last decade, from any particular eccentricity about the interpretations.
Tempi were around the norm and were not subjected to any great
manipulation; second subjects went at about the same tempo as
the first, nor did he wantonly apply agogic exaggerations or rubatos.
If the music sometimes took on a new look, this was to be sought
in the fiery articulation and the sheer gut conviction he was
able to obtain from every single player. When he plays Sibelius,
the mountain ranges may seem more jagged than usual, the storms
may rage more fiercely, the lightning flash more violently, the
moments of dark brooding may brood even more darkly, yet the landscape
is still a truly Sibelian one, arising from the very great empathy
Bernstein obviously had for this composer.
must also be said that Bernstein and the NYPO were, in their heyday,
one of those associations that come our way only too rarely. I
thought particularly of Koussevitsky/Boston and Mravinsky/Leningrad
in the sheer intensity of the playing which, even in studio conditions,
is frequently astounding. The players are living dangerously,
the wind within a millimetre of overblowing, the strings at times
rasping in their attack. On several occasions, in the middle of
the finale of no. 2, for instance, logic would declare that Bernstein
has already fired all his guns, at only half-way through the movement
he has nothing left in reserve for the crowning climax. And yet,
as with Koussevitsky and Mravinsky, still more power is found.
I hate to say it, but in a direct comparison Berglund and the
admirable Helsinki PO, fine as they are on their own terms, sound
rather small beer.
the LPs were originally issued, all this reached us through rather
coarse, strident sound which put a lot of people off. The recordings
were close-miked and this cannot be changed, but the effect is
now of a warm, concert-hall sound, while still very detailed.
The conductorís pianissimos are allowed to register.
no. 1 has the reputation of being "Tchaikovskian", and
I must say I have never been able to see this. There was a famous
occasion when Sibelius and Mahler met and Sibelius declared that
the symphony satisfied him as a form because it was "like
the world". Mahler replied that "no symphony must be
like the world, it must contain everything". Suppose Tchaikovsky
had been present too, what might he have replied? Maybe something
on the lines of "the symphony must contain all of myself"?
Tchaikovskyís symphonies are essentially personal dramas;
Sibelius, even in his first symphony, speaks of the forces of
nature, of forces outside himself. His approach is not confrontational;
each idea grows out of the previous one. His art concerns logical
growth, not drama.
seems to me to realise this completely; it is a virile, gripping
reading, urgent in the outer movements, without any attempt to
sentimentalise the second movement.
in no. 1 Bernstein was a shade swifter than the norm, here he
is slightly slower. However, tempo is not everything. Berglundís
first movement has a slightly shorter timing and I must bow before
the evidence, but I was quite convinced Bernstein was faster.
This is because of the urgency of his articulation, beside which
Berglund appears a little lack-lustre. Bernstein also creates
a powerfully brooding effect in the slow movement with some colossal
climaxes. The scherzo is electrifying, especially at the surprise
return after the trio. The finale is notably slow. This is by
general consent the one weak movement in the entire canon, and
the method of Beecham (especially in the live BBC performance)
was to minimise its repetitiveness with a swift tempo. Bernstein
takes it at its face value and manages to convince by his sheer
belief in what he is doing. What does worry me is his broadening
out at the moment of recapitulation, which may prove mannered
writing two symphonies in a large-scale nationalist-romantic vein
Sibelius began to seek new directions. The third has a Haydnesque
clarity and suggests a move towards neo-classicism. Some conductors
seem distrustful of its apparent calmness of spirit and rush it
off its feet. This is particularly regrettable in the case of
the wistful poetry of the second movement. Bernstein is just fractionally
faster than Berglund all through; hearing him immediately after
the Finnish performance is uncannily like hearing the same interpretation
given a sharper profile. Perhaps I would prefer the second movement
a notch slower, but there is no shortage of rapt poetry in its
later stages and the outer movements are magnificent; vital and
ongoing, but with space to breathe.
comparison of Bernsteinís timings with those of Beecham and Berglund
in this, the most uncompromising and modern of all Sibeliusís
symphonies, suggests that it will be a controversial reading:
fact, such is the gripping intensity of the playing that I felt
no inclination to start making comparisons; this is a very fine
performance in its own right. Furthermore, Bernstein seems to
conduct each movement in one long seamless line, making each new
idea grow out of the previous one. Awesome!
had little but praise for the first four symphonies, I have to
say I find the fifth a little less satisfactory. It was recorded
several years before most of the others and I wonder if those
years saw the full flowering of Bernsteinís interpretative genius?
I am too conscious of the conductorís control here, inhibiting
spontaneity. In the first movement Bernsteinís tendency to broaden
out at key points runs counter to the gradual accelerando written
into the music. Instead of a continual gathering of momentum the
music lurches backwards and forwards. The second movement is disfigured
by some lachrymose phrasing from the strings towards the end Ė
fine in Tchaikovsky but quite out of place in Sibelius. The finale
nearly grinds to a halt about half-way through. In the hands of
the best interpreters we get the idea that the mountain climb
has finished and we are now moving along a high plateau, but we
are still moving. Bernstein seems to have stopped to admire
the admittedly impressive view.
to say there are also many perceptive touches. Overall, I get
the impression that Bernstein is trying to make the symphony as
disjointed as possible, maybe in an attempt to convince us that
it was not, after all, a retrenchment from the modernity of no.
4. I donít think he really succeeds, but the attempt is worth
together with no. 3, is the most elusive of the symphonies, its
radiant calm having tempted many, notably Maazel, to try to beef
it up. I thought Bernstein a mite swift in the main body of the
first movement, but in fact the classic Beecham has a shorter
timing still (Bernstein 8:03, Beecham 7:01). This is a little
misleading, since a lot is due to the fact that Bernstein (and
also Berglund) treats the opening pages as a sort of poetic meditation
while under Beecham they move forward more purposefully; you feel
that ideas are germinating which will then break out in the body
of the movement (and note that the opening isnít a slow
introduction, the tempo is, or should be, the same throughout).
The gentle second movement, often compared to an evocation of
the Northern lights, is very poetically rendered (it is one second
longer than Berglundís!) while the menacing scherzo is suitably
trenchant with a precision to the dotted rhythms which makes Berglund
sound just a little slack. The finale has a bracing vitality.
Here the difference with Berglundís more meditative approach is
very marked; 8:57 against 11:12. The music seems to be able to
take both extremes but Beecham, at 9:43 really does seem to have
the ideal solution.
short, I donít think Beecham has been surpassed, but Bernstein
offers a more bracing alternative which is well worth having.
dearly like to know how much of this was recorded in 1960 and
how much in 1965. The bulk must come from a single performance
for it is too well integrated to have been pieced together from
two sessions five years apart. Bernsteinís no. 7 is comparable
to his no. 4; a little more drawn out than certain rivals (the
famous Koussevitsky or a notable performance from Boult on BBC
Legends), it has such intensity, such a feeling for the growth
of the music that the wish to set others alongside it is banished.
This symphony contains numerous changes of tempo, each one a potential
pitfall, and Bernsteinís performance is quite seamless.
various sides of Sibelius were remarkably compartmentalised. The
creator of some of the 20th Centuryís mightiest symphonic
utterances sometimes used apparently similar techniques in his
symphonic poems but (except in Tapiola) used them to evoke gently
the magic legends of Finlandís past. Berglund understands this
perfectly and I have to say that Bernsteinís attempt to find symphonic
drama and modernity in these two works, however exciting in a
superficial way, is just mistaken. In addition, Taru Valjakka
makes a far pleasanter sound than Phyllis Curtin, and integrates
the words better into the melodic line. I am in no position to
judge Curtinís Finnish but the impression is that she is making
heavy weather of it.
is unlikely that any cycle under one conductor will give us the
best possible version of each work; here I have serious reservations
about only one symphony (and the two shorter pieces). In view
of the intensity and conviction which is to be found throughout
the set I can only say it offers a magnificent bargain.
booklet notes by Matthias Henke are in general good, but I feel
obliged to take up his comments on the second symphony: "Contemporary
critics already complained that it was cobbled together Ďpiecemealí
Ė a not altogether unjust impression that may be due, in part,
to the opening Allegretto, which breaks with the conventional
dualism of contrastively structured subject-groups and presents
in its stead a multiplicity of musical ideas." OK up to a
point, for this first movement begins with a number of ideas which
are presented as separated fragments. But in the course of the
movement the rustling strings motifs gradually bring the fragments
together until they are presented as one long melodic line at
the moment of recapitulation. This was the basis of the theory
advanced by Cecil Gray that Sibelius had turned sonata form inside
out and the exposition of this movement was in fact at the end
(where the recapitulation should be) not at the beginning.