Feature Review – Miraculous Logic: The Music of Jean Sibelius [London Philharmonic/Osmo Vänskä]

Written by: Edward Clark

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä

January/February 2010

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Where do Sibelius’s fortune’s lie today in Great Britain? We hear symphonies 2 and 5 regularly, 3, 4 and 6 hardly at all; 1 and 7 somewhere in between. He has become a composer for specialist conductors. For instance, the current Russian maestri leading our British orchestras hardly touch Sibelius. Nor do the German conductors who visit our shores. London generally hears Sibelius conducted by Colin Davis and visiting Finns. This is in contrast to Mahler who is on every conductor’s wish-list, except, it seems that of Colin Davis!

Osmo Vänskä is one such Finn, now a veteran of Sibelius cycles at the annual Lahti International Sibelius Festival in Finland. His presence in London is welcome at a time when the whole symphonic story is at risk of falling under the thrall of Mahler this year and next.

Sibelius and Mahler are, of course, symphonic antipodes, sharing some devices in instrumental use but differing in the fundamental question of what a symphony should be. Mahler is the perfect representative of musical giganticism, where scale and size are demanded for self-expression. Sibelius’s penchant became increasingly concerned with self-discipline over use of musical material. This is not to say that either composer was deficient in original use of symphonic form. But Sibelius’s last symphony takes less time than the first movement of Mahler’s last (either number 9 or 10).

Sibelius moved from late-Romanticism to near-modernism in a startling 25-year period. Indeed Tapiola could be described as post-modern today. The London Philharmonic/Osmo Vänskä cycle gives us pause for thought on those previous gurus who highlighted his status; Constant Lambert in his book Music Ho (1934), Peter Maxwell Davies in his Symphony (1976, now known as No .1) and Julian Anderson in his article (Sibelius and contemporary music) in the Cambridge Companion to Sibelius (2004).

After hearing the Vänskä-conducted cycle it can be said he is one of the few conductors who refresh our pre-conceived thoughts on Sibelius and his stature. From the helter-skelter dash of Symphony No.1 to the unnerving evolution Symphony No.7 Vänskä throws new light on many aspects of the sometimes bewildering but always fascinating art of Sibelius.

The first concert began with the early tone poem, The Wood Nymph, which proved to be a very perceptive choice to open the series. This is a work of extraordinary experimentation in all sorts of ways, not least in orchestral devices and instrumental colouring. It pre-echoes numerous works including the finales of the first three symphonies, Tapiola, The Swan of Tuonela and Night Ride and Sunrise. But the parts do not add up to a satisfactory sum; it is sectional, the opening is sub-Karelia Suite in inspiration and the very end is not totally conclusive as in the best of Sibelius.

After what we must regard as a bit of a misfire we were taken into one of Sibelius’s most perfect works, the glorious Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, soloist Henning Kraggerud. This is folk-art music at its best, rivalled only by Bartók; short, deceptively easy, often languorous pieces that delight and sparkle in equal measure. In this performance, No.4 showed exquisite repose and No.5 remained in the mind for its hummable, unforgettable tune. Perhaps Kraggerud was helped by his country’s heritage and his knowledge of the local fiddle culture from the Nordic/Norwegian region. He and Vänskä combined to show off these miniatures to the very best effect.

They turned out to be the highlight of the concert for Symphony No.1 was taken at such breakneck speed that it seemed to take the orchestra by surprise. With such fast tempo the work lacked the necessary blazing conviction demanded by the music; the brass were disappointing by being too removed from the action. Vänskä gave the impression that his entreaties were not being fully met by the players; he was animated throughout with little to show from the orchestra apart from dutifully going about its business, although its virtuosity in the scherzo was not in doubt.

The second concert gave a rare opportunity to hear Symphonies 2 and 3 together (although here back to front). Both received superlative performances. Symphony 2 confronts the spectre of Death. It was written in the aftermath of the death of Sibelius’s baby daughter, Kirsti, through typhus and sketched while another daughter caught the killer disease. No wonder the composer suffered a virtual nervous breakdown whilst in Italy. Such anxieties and emotions are all in this superb work. If we hear the sound of liberation in the finale it is surely of the human spirit rather than that of overt Finnish nationalism. Vänskä takes a brisk view of the first movement conjuring images of a coil being tightened, then released. There was a sexual frisson to his reading throughout the work. The orchestra played like demons fully believing in its conductor’s vision. The finale’s great tune was phrased with unusual deliberation allowing the end to appear convincing and fulfilling at the same time.

During the years between these two symphonies Sibelius appears to have undergone a religious (or, at least, a spiritual) experience that allowed him to replace thoughts of Death with those of Salvation. Sketches from an intervening, though aborted, oratorio, based on the final stanzas of The Kalevala depicting Marjatta and Jesus, surfaced powerfully in Symphony 3. Energy and hope abound in the first movement; a querulous sense of life’s fortunes dominates the second and resurrection of the spirit overwhelms the third, which combines a scherzo-type opening with a majestic chorale conclusion. Vänskä captured the mood in each movement in a uniquely satisfying way. Nothing was rushed, the middle movement particularly was given time to breath and display its disquieting atmosphere. This movement is usually conducted in too cavalier a fashion, making light of the originality of its beguiling texture and structure. One gift Vänskä has given to the LPO is to persuade its members to play really quietly when required, no more than in the divided cello section of the middle movement, a superb moment in a truly wonderful performance.

Between the symphonies, soprano Helena Juntunen sang a number of orchestral songs to the manor born. All are melodically rich and none outstays its welcome. Nature poetry and love’s disappointments were dominating themes through Sibelius’s fertile imagination. This was one of the great Sibelius concerts London has experienced in recent times.

The third concert coupled symphonies 4 and 5, each described as being “the masterpiece of the 20th-century”; No.4 by Sir Malcolm Arnold and No.5 by Peter Paul Nash, both respected composers. The optimism at the end of Symphony No 3 never properly returns in Sibelius’s music. True, Humoresque No.5, from the opening concert, propels us with a sense of well-being with its bouncy, memorable tune. But that is a miniature. In his large-scale works Sibelius changed direction, no more so than in Symphony No 4 (1911). On the surface this appears to inhabit a darkness as black as any witnessed in a Finnish forest in midwinter. Various events conspired to cause this sense of despair. A health-scare a few years earlier forced the composer to abjure from his favourite cigars and alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms must have been hard to bear. He also discovered, helped by his friend Busoni, the music of Schoenberg and realised this was a development within Europe to which he wished to be associated.

Symphony No.4 is a summary of all these feelings at that particular time of his life. Vänskä’s view, taut and highly expressive, allowed the music to be heard to its best advantage. So much so that the result seemed to demonstrate how Sibelius’s genius illuminates darkness, strange though that may appear. This performance contained a unique blend of compression and space so that the “miraculous logic” title of the entire series was displayed to best advantage.

After so much instability in the first three movements, the finale was taken at such speed that it appeared to be a mad dash towards oblivion, only avoided by the eventual stoic acceptance of an uncertain future at the very end: an extraordinary conclusion to an extraordinary performance of a very great work.

In 1913 Sibelius wrote Luonnotar based on the story from The Kalevala about the creation of the world. Helena Juntunen’s accomplished reading touched the very soul of this strange-sounding work, with its high tessitura and glowering melodic lines. This was indeed a prophesy of the great opera Sibelius never wrote.

Soon after, in 1914, he began his Symphony No.5 but dissatisfaction caused a five-year delay until the third version was premiered in 1919. The shadows cast by the Symphony No.4 heard in the 1914 version were largely eliminated in favour of an expansive, idealistic approach to the human condition. In doing so he innovated throughout the work.
Vänskä showed complete mastery of the huge demands made for symphonic coherence; the slow, mysterious opening gathering speed to reach an exultant conclusion in the first movement; everything sounding spontaneous and natural like an organism growing from a seed to the complete flower. The great tune, known as the ‘Swan Hymn’, in the finale, surely the finest in all 20th-century music, led the way to one of the greatest surprises in any symphony. How to end the never-ending tune? By destroying it with six, unevenly spaced hammer blows on full orchestra. Sibelius’s demons of the previous decade were at last laid to rest. This was a concert where the listener was taken to hell and back.

The English love an underdog and the pick of the bunch of out-and-out masterpieces in the last concert was Symphony No.6. Beloved by some (not least, Beecham) and largely ignored by most, my affections towards this miraculous work were surely due to Vänskä’s sublime reading, perfect in every way. A symphony in four movements with a slow introduction, written in 1923! Surely this is an example of neo-classical fashion? No. Sibelius reverted to earlier times, to the English Reformation and the Italian Renaissance, both styles of which he had studied in his younger years in Helsinki. Choosing the Dorian mode as his touchstone, Sibelius conjures up an elegiac, archaic sound, which creates a sense of timelessness throughout. The LPO strings floated the pristine purity of the opening superbly and Vänskä’s shading of dynamics, always obeying Sibelius’s instructions, allowed the music to speak in its own inimitably, eloquent way. A sense of anxiety is never far distant in all the great works and the orchestral roar near the end was truly awesome. Just when we thought it was safe to go out! The serene coda seemed to allow our eyes to open at dawn with remembrance of a fitful night’s sleep. Peace at last.

The concert had opened with the last great masterpiece, Tapiola (1926). As heard from Vänskä this was not a culmination of a career but a new beginning, with its technical brilliance and profound depth combining in a performance of the greatest power imaginable. Today it excites composers of all generations around the world and can be heard as Sibelius’s finest legacy to the future. When asked why he admires Sibelius, the French composer, Hughes Dufort, speaks about the “catastrophic” element in Sibelius, none more so on display than the most terrifying tempest in all music near the end of Tapiola. Vänskä heralded this with the merest whisper on the strings, a sign of his diligence to observing the composer’s demands for really quiet playing.

Before the interval, and to recover our poise after the terrors of Tapiola, we heard the outstanding leader of the LPO cellos, Kristina Blaumane, pour oil on troubled waters in Two Serious Melodies for cello and orchestra, ‘Cantique’ and ‘Devotion’.

Schoenberg, late in life, famously said there was plenty of good music to be composed in C major. Perhaps he had Sibelius’s Symphony No.7 in mind. They were, in many ways, kindred spirits; experimental, innovative, producing new musical languages for future generations. In their maturity they each compressed musical form. Under Vänskä, Symphony No.7 seemed a huge work performed in a short space of time. This sleight of hand is a Sibelius trademark. We savoured the ethereal beauty of the opening string threnody before shuddering at the increasing turbulence centred around the noble trombone theme that recurs three times before subsiding to a review of the work’s thematic inventions, rising to the final cadence which, here, sent shivers down my spine.

Hearing Sibelius’s music will never be the same.

To sum-up this cycle. Osmo Vänskä is rivalled only by Colin Davis for contemporary Sibelian perception. Whereas Davis is expansive in the first two symphonies, Vänskä is brisk and energetic. Thereafter both bring peculiar insights to the formidable Sibelian imagination.

The LPO had its moments of resistance to Vänskä’s choice of tempos mainly in the first two symphonies of which most of the players were familiar with. It speaks volumes of the orchestra’s current repertoire that the later works were largely new. Indeed the parts were shipped in from Minnesota, where Vänskä is now based. With careful preparation by Vänskä the LPO did succeed in entering into the idiosyncratic Sibelian idiom, producing truly outstanding renditions of symphonies 3 and 4.

But why does the LPO change its personnel halfway through the cycle. Nearly a quarter of the players changed between the second and the fourth concerts, many from the front of the string desks, including the leader! Vänska says this never happens in America. This lack of stability among the players is discourteous to the conductor and undermines the artistic integrity of the orchestra’s reputation.

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