> In Search Of Sibelius by Roy Brewer- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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by Roy Brewer

Sibelius is well represented in articles and reviews on the Musicweb, and I have no wish to duplicate – much less disagree with – the views of other writers. This is a subjective view of how interpretations of the great Finnish composer have changed over the years and, as always, the qualities of any performance rests, in the final analysis, with who is listening to it. However, not only has the sound of recorded performances improved over the years, but the approach to Sibelius’s works by orchestras, conductors and audiences has also changed significantly.

In Musical Opinion, July 1932, after a visit to London by the National Finnish Orchestra (quoted by Malcolm MacDonald in "Performing Sibelius" on this site) Havergal Brian (writing as ‘La Main Gauche’) remarks on "the divergence of playing between English and Finnish orchestras", adding "The Sibelius symphonies played by, say, Beecham, Wood and Harty vary mostly in the way of dynamics and rhythm: the biggest punches come from Wood, smartly marked rhythm from Harty, and the finest musicality from Beecham, which includes both punch and rhythm. There is no doubt that the records issued recently by the Sibelius Society of this symphonies played by an English orchestra under a Finnish conductor are unlike the performances of the same works under English conductors".

Today it is difficult to recall the thrill that passed through the world of music when HMV's Sibelius Society recordings were released. In the late ’30s a couple of music students and I pooled our slender resources and bought them, one by one, in their enticing brown, gold-lettered albums, listening with growing wonder as a magnificent new sound world unfolded. Sibelius was not unknown in Britain at the time, but until then was represented on records mainly by shorter works, such as "Valse Triste", the "Karelia Suite" and "Finlandia". This encouraged a few critics to attach the "nationalist" label to his music; but when the symphonies appeared few could deny there was far more than nationalism to a composer who, almost single-handedly, was rescuing the symphony at a time when many musical pundits were writing it off. Yes, here were the "punches" and "smartly marked rhythm" already observed; but here also was a bolder, more challenging use of symphonic form, an original harmonic and rhythmic language and the sheer architectural grandeur that makes the Sibelian sound immediately identifiable. Now that many new recordings of the symphonies, tone poems and shorter pieces, together with some CD transfers of earlier LP performances, have become available it is, perhaps, opportune to reflect on "the divergence of playing" that still exists.

Many of Sibelius’s works were completed when Finland was widely regarded as being on the periphery of European music. He worked in the enormous shadows cast by Mahler, Elgar, Stravinsky and others, and the Second World War deprived him of an international audience. Yet, even in a world that had, at last, assimilated Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss and others, Sibelius’s voice was unusual. The music is strongly key-centred and rooted in post-romantic impressionism. It does not so much challenge nineteenth century symphonic conventions as reassert their importance to the twentieth. It is a harmless pastime to identify composers’ "influences" but, while Mahlerian, even Tchaikovskian, echoes can occasionally be heard, for the most part Sibelius remains uniquely himself.

The majority of the symphonies and tone poems available in Britain on record between the 30s and late 50s were by English orchestras and conductors, including Beecham, Anthony Collins, Boult and Barbirolli. A notable exception was the Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus (1856-1933), an early champion of Sibelius who gave many impressive and authoritative readings of his works. A few Kajanus transfers, such as a 3-CD set on the Finlandia label, can occasionally be found in catalogues.

The LP era saw the rise of the great European and American orchestras and their high profile conductors. Almost immediately Sibelius became more firmly established on his lonely eminence: the intricate orchestration, poetry and grandeur of the symphonies, the Nordic gloom and glitter of the tone poems and accomplished scene-painting of works such as The Swan of Tuonela, Night Ride and Sunrise, Tapiola and The Bard are irresistible; but was there still a "secret" Sibelius yet to be discovered? For example the 2nd Symphony with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (recorded in 1972 and digitally remastered in RCA’s Classical Navigator series) makes me wonder whether such highly polished, thrill-a-minute versions obscure something more profound under their brilliant surfaces. Sibelius was not a particularly prolific composer and, though he was to live for another three decades, virtually retired from the international music scene after completing his 7th Symphony in 1924. It is therefore easy to forget that, as well as being a magician, he was also a remarkable innovator and, after more than 70 years, some of his works still possess a curiously opaque quality.

Such thoughts occurred to me in the ’60s, a particularly rich period for Sibelius recordings, when a number of LPs by Tauno Hannikainen with the London Symphony Orchestra appeared on various labels. Hannikainen, a celebrated interpreter of Bruckner, worked in the USA from 1940 until the ’60s, part of that time as assistant to the legendary Fritz Reiner and his Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and had studied and discussed the scores with the master himself. Here, then, was a reasonable chance of hearing some convincing, even "authentic", performances. To me this was the case. Hannikainen’s approach is revelatory – robust, subtly controlled and meticulously phrased, yet with a spaciousness that lifts the music out of the concert hall transports it to the strange landscape where Sibelius’s music lives. Incidentally, the widespread belief that Sibelius can be fully realised only by hand-reared Scandinavian orchestras was, at the same time, disproved: the LSO plays as to the manner born. These LPs may now be difficult to find; try the excellent s/h LP service offered by Spiral Classics, which is linked to this site. A CD transfer of the Violin Concerto with Hannikainen, the LSO and Tossy Spivakovsky {Everest EVC 9035) exists, though, I was disconcerted to read in the sleeve note by Malcolm Rayment on the original LP that "a pertinent question today is whether Sibelius is on the point of suffering a period of semi-oblivion" and, in the same note, the (unattributed) opinion "we are now told that Sibelius has been hopelessly over rated, and that he was no more than a minor figure in twentieth-century music", though Mr. Rayment generously allows that "if the ‘new’ attitude to Sibelius is correct then he was one of the most successful charlatans who ever lived".

Recordings of the symphonies and some of the tone poems made by Anthony Collins with the LSO between 1952 and 1955 appeared in 1993 on a 4-CD set from Beulah (1-4PD8)[nla], and was enthusiastically reviewed (with some reservations as to the recorded sound) in Rob Barnett’s review on Musicweb in October 1999. In his valuable introduction and comparisons on this site Gerald Fenech rates Collins as "the best guide through [Sibelius’s] musical landscape". This is not a discography, and a number of highly recommended CD transfers of the complete symphonies and some of the tone poems, such as those from the late late ’60s and ’70s by Barbirolli with the Hallé and Paavo Berglund with the Bournemouth SO for EMI, have been well received on this site. The five-CD set by Barbirolli includes finely-wrought versions of more romantic works, such as Scenes Historiques, the Karelia Suite, Pelleas and Melisande and Rakastava (a reminder that those who know only the symphonies do not know their Sibelius). In the symphonies Barbirolli’s preference for restrained tempi, sharp contrasts and fine detail discover much that can be lost in more helter-skelter interpretations. The most exciting versions of the tone poems at least until Vänskä’s recently-issued performance (see below) – came, perhaps surprisingly, from Boult and the LPO in the ’50s, rescued in 2000 on a two-CD set from Omega Classics (OCD1927 and 1928). The temptation to play Sibelius like a Finnish Elgar (and it has happened) is here firmly resisted. Boult strips the music of any traces of comfortable opulence, replacing it with passion and drama.

More recently several complete sets of the symphonies have appeared and (with the exception of the over-stuffed approach of Maazel and the VPO) justify, in their various ways, the critical acclaim they have received, though I find none consistently outstanding. The extrovert 5th with its intricate progression of themes and fragments of themes that carry it to its impressive conclusion, that authentic chiller-thriller En Saga and the vivid Violin Concerto rarely fail to connect; yet I remain convinced that a re-assessment of the ways in which Sibelius’s major works are approached by many conductors is called for. On this site Mr. Fenech refers to "near misses" by Ashkenazy, Barbirolli and Maazel in the 6th symphony – not, at least superficially, a particularly complex work – and the "curiously elusive" character of the 7th Symphony – a judgement with which I concur.

The latest sets of the symphonies and some of the tone poems to have appeared amply fulfil my highest expectations the persuasive, splendidly played versions by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti SO made in 2000 and 2001 have earned almost universal critical acclaim. If any Sibelius recordings merit the word "definitive" these must surely be them. Vänskä’s grasp of the "ground plan" of both symphonies and tone poems is phenomenal and exciting. Tony Haywood puts his finger on their unique appeal when he mentions (of En Saga) in July 2002 Vänskä’s "virtually ideal pacing" letting "the phrases and paragraphs unfold in a natural and unforced way". This could, I believe, be said of this conductor’s entire approach. The finely held balance, impeccable phrasing and confident moulding of melodic lines, from quietest pianissimo to cataclysmic crescendo. are breathtaking. The bleak 4th Symphony is an excellent example. In the first movement (molto moderato quasi adagio) Vänskä’s daringly slow tempi succeed in revealing the deeply personal nature of a work that has frequently eluded other Sibelius interpreters. The inclusion of two versions of the 5th Symphony, the original four-movement one first heard in 1915 and the three-movement one performed a year later, provides a fascinating insight into the evolutionary creative process that Sibelius often used (for example in En Saga (1892 and 1902) and the Violin Concerto (1903 and 1904)). The first version would probably have been given a respectable place in the Sibelius oeuvre, but the final version, with its taut outlines and elemental nature is undoubtedly the finer.

As stated at the outset, these are personal notes. What emerges from them is, I hope, that the works merit more intensive listening and closer investigation than, perhaps due to their immediate appeal,, they sometimes receive. Indeed Sibelius might well have been considered ripe for the "historically informed" treatment that several 19th and 20th century composers have been receiving lately had not Vänskä demonstrated that a meticulous reading of the scores and a deep understanding of the composer’s inner world of the imagination are the key to the true voice of the Finnish master.

Roy Brewer

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