Symphony No. 1 may well be Sibelius
at his most romantic and diffuse but it’s also a very attractive
work and Mark Elder certainly conveys this. The clarinet introduction
is an elegy sung with seamless outpouring, the violins’ response
tingles and the first theme has both flexibility and edge.
The first climax is grand with fine brass contributions. The
second theme on flutes and harps (tr. 1 3:28) is frisky and
dancing, while the more significant third theme introduced
by oboe but soon intertwined with flute and clarinet is fittingly
momentous in character despite the tranquillo marking,
a fascinating paradox. The stretto and crescendo
from 4:32 is stylishly vigorous but Elder also neatly details
the sudden intimacy of the passage for two solo violins from
5:06. The shadowy version of the first theme in the woodwind
from 6:53 in the development in fluent yet troubled delivery
is another paradox Elder enjoys before its shining forth in
the strings in the recapitulation at 7:44.
I compared the 1966 recording with the Halle
by Elder’s distinguished predecessor, Sir John Barbirolli
(EMI 5 67299 2). The comparative timings are:-
Barbirolli’s slightly more expansive measure
creates a more torrid, visceral account emphasised by a brighter
if more shrill recording than Elder’s more rounded balance.
Barbirolli’s introduction is plainer, more direct and dramatic.
The first theme is more arresting, sinewy and physical, the
first climax more raw and intense. The third theme is more
poetic, though the build up in the development is rather deliberate.
Elder’s presentation overall is smoother with more attention
to the broad picture but the climax (9:10), because of this
fluency and progression, isn’t as searing as Barbirolli’s
nor is there his sense in the aftermath of being wrenched
away from the emotion.
In the slow movement (tr. 2) Elder’s more flowing
tempo for the soft opening theme makes it even more tender
than Barbirolli’s and his pp repeat of its second strain
as a refrain (0:54) even more melting. Elder’s treatment of
the balmy interlude led by the horns (3:14) is dreamier than
Barbirolli’s with more of a sense of the suspension of time.
The return of the opening theme (4:25) reaffirms the serious
heart of things but without the leaden sombreness of Barbirolli.
Elder’s poco a poco stringendo passage from 6:15 is
more playful and analytic, where Barbirolli is more exciting.
Nevertheless Elder’s climax is tremendously high powered and
Elder points more contrast in the final return of the theme.
While it and its tempo are identical, the added cross rhythms
in the second violins and violas create a more halting, sorrowing
Elder’s Scherzo is a more pacy Allegro
than Barbirolli’s yet without his grit. The strings’ theme
is more dance like from Barbirolli but Elder shows more vigour
in the later sforzandi, more energy and playfulness
in the following quaver runs. To the Trio he brings a cool
feel of suspended animation, in more marked contrast than
Barbirolli who is relaxedly unhurried. Here Elder is dreamier,
more suave, graceful. Elder also has a splendidly crisp stretto
Scherzo close, if not quite as exciting as Barbirolli’s.
To the finale’s opening Elder brings searing
emotion albeit observed at something of a distance, in the
audience rather than Barbirolli’s raw, passionate pulling
you on stage. But Elder’s presentation of the Allegro molto
(tr. 4 1:55) is more mettlesome, less rhetorical with more
sense of a maelstrom. Elder’s presents the big tune (3:35)
less richly than Barbirolli yet with a more natural flow and
attractive dusky quality, beginning at a more sensitive mf
and only gradually louder as the horns take over seamlessly
at 4:57. His development (5:41) is more feathery and scherzo
like than Barbirolli’s, less frenzied but more virtuoso. Elder’s
sorrowing clarinet recapitulation of the big tune (7:45) is
more eloquent while its closing blaze, satisfyingly lyrical,
is more reflective than Barbirolli’s greater fire, breadth
and Tchaikovskian ardour.
The lower strings’ beginning of Elder’s account
of Symphony No. 3 (tr. 5) radiates rustic jollity and
vigour, the jollity confirmed by the woodwind and exulting
onward sweep to the first climax. Then the second theme sustained
on the cellos (1:24) subtly swells through the trimly ticking
quaver texture of second violins and violas. The first violins
respond (2:30) with a becalmed mirror image transformation,
beautifully lyrical in this performance, before with calm
ascents of the upper strings and first violins’ leaps we seem
to be in ballet mode. The development finds the second theme
in a sultry bassoon solo (4:49) with the now ever present
semiquavers of the first theme in tow. Elder makes this all
a gripping progression and the louder, bleaker return of the
second theme on full strings (7:01) is set against a stark
woodwind ostinato in quavers. The coda (8:42) provides
a novelty in the form of a wind chorale, a benediction with
closing Amen on full orchestra.
I compared another concert performance, or
rather a recording created from two performances in 2003 by
the London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis (LSO Live LSO 0051).
My comparative timings below give actual music timings for
Being more measured in the first movement makes
Davis somewhat more deliberate, so you’re aware of structure
as much as progression. Davis’ second theme is more soulfully,
romantically treated, more writhing where Elder is more probing,
earnestly questioning. Davis does bring more poise to the
upper strings’ ascents and more telling mystery to the ballet
like material but Elder makes the bassoon solo in the development
more urgent and in balance with the strings’ accompaniment.
Similarly Elder’s return of the second theme with woodwind
ostinato is more arresting. Davis’ coda is calm, assured
and expansive, Elder’s is more purposeful.
The central movement (tr. 6), marked Andantino
con moto, quasi allegretto is presented by Elder emphasising
the con moto aspect. The flutes lead a parade joined
by clarinets and Elder brings a keen edge to it against a
backcloth of sustained horn notes and offbeat touches from
divided violins. There’s a warmer texture and appreciable
swing when the tune appears on divided violins at 1:54, the
effect that of a refracted waltz. At 3:33 cellos divided in
three provide a string chorale of yearning nature. In a brief
contrasting section from 5:56 pizzicato strings’ activity
and breezy woodwind material proves inconsequential before
divided violins bring back the theme over which woodwind provide
more evocative touches of melodic expansion. Elder observes
this all scrupulously but leaves you to gauge exactly the
mood. Davis’ slower tempo secures a more lilting, comforting
woodwind opening with warm strings’ support, a sonorous glow
yet also lightness of touch and phrasing. His passages for
divided cellos are richly contemplative and expansive, if
not as aching. His contrasting section is a fresher episodic
diversion of more dramatic character.
The emotional directness of Elder’s finale
(tr. 7) is striking. Its beginning is joyful, if reflectively
so. The second theme (1:06) is warier, its key elements duplicated
in an ostinato for muted violins. Its progress is full
of incident and atmosphere, notably the passage from 2:08
when the violins’ mutes come off and the heavy accents in
low register have a grim resolve and efficiency, vividly relished
by Elder. Yet in the development (3:11) the second theme is
rigorously and here rather spikily discussed in purely musical
terms, albeit with the emotional effect at the same time of
a storm brewing. The short passages marked tranquillo,
the first at 3:56, are only just acknowledged. Instead of
a recapitulation there’s a new big tune (4:23) whose compelling
progress is an amalgam of stolidity and irresistible belief.
It can plead and it can bristle. It can be calm and assertive.
It can be gritty and warm too. So sit back and enjoy Elder’s
fine control of the gradual crescendo of the strings
from 7:00 adding to the effect of an unquenchable force and
the braying horns at 7:49.
Davis’ finale, taken at a slightly faster tempo,
has a more active character throughout, giving the second
theme a more frolicsome manner but the later accents in the
violins are more lightly treated. His development is more
emotive than Elder’s with a greater spread swathe of string
sound, notable in the SACD recording (LSO 0552). Davis gets
more nuance from the dynamic contrasts within the presentation
of the big tune and more bounce from its reappearance with
different spotlighting: when the horns join in. Elder is more
consistent in delivery but less exultant in effect, a powerful,
orderly march rather than Davis’ sense of heady hurtling to
In sum, then, Elder provides satisfyingly symphonic
accounts with sensitive attention to balance, structure, phrasing
and dynamics. Comparisons show a more dramatic, torrid approach
to Sibelius is possible. Which Sibelius you prefer, or whether
like me you like on occasion to be able to choose between
the two, is your choice.