Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
Sir Mark Elder
Symphony No.1 recorded 1-2 August 2006, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester; Symphony No.3 recorded 26 April 2007 in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: February 2009
CD No: HALLÉ CD HLL 7514
Duration: 69 minutes
Sibelius took his time in writing his First Symphony. In fact he was somewhat goaded into it by the premiere of the first Finnish symphony, by Ernst Mielck in 1897. Mielck was then a 19-year-old prodigy, a pupil of Max Bruch in Germany and someone well capable of writing a late-Romantic, four-movement symphony in the Germanic mould. Alas, Mielck was to die at the age of 21.
But Sibelius was not to know that Mielck would succumb so young. The older Finn by nearly 20 years, Sibelius had a better track record, at least at home. By the time he came to concentrate on an ‘abstract’ symphony, in the late 1890s, Sibelius had written a number of Nationalistic works, including the choral/orchestral “Kullervo”, the Lemminkäinen Legends (Suite) and the Karelia music. Sibelius was further stimulated by a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in Berlin in 1898. Sibelius’s response was to be called ‘A Musical Dialogue’ and would be in three or four movements.
In any event, probably fired by the Russian orchestral examples he was hearing in Helsinki – works by Glazunov, Anton Rubinstein, Kalinnikov, Arensky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky (the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, no less), Sibelius set about writing his take on what a Finnish symphony should be, neatly avoiding comparison with Mielck’s German view. Indeed virtually all traces of Sibelius’s Austro-German (Wagner and Bruckner) enthusiasms are entirely absent from his First Symphony.
Any interpreter has, therefore, the challenge of identifying and producing a Sibelian authenticity when performing this work. The ghosts of the Russian composers lurk in every movement (the fantasia element of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet in the symphony’s finale not least). Sir Mark Elder (not knighted at the time of these performances) has produced a very well rehearsed (over-rehearsed, maybe), almost sculptured, view of the First Symphony, very well performed.
But what is lacking is a sense of spontaneity, of allowing the musicians freedom to express themselves. The slower, very Slavic passages, generally containing the big melodies, are kept under too much control with not enough frisson generated. The scherzo is the most successful movement; a well-judged tempo produces a sense of real excitement. Elsewhere such a quality is missing and the adrenaline rush, particularly in the finale, fails to materialise. Listen to Beecham, Stokowski (from Helsinki) and Barbirolli to hear the necessary balance of passion and control where nerve-ends tingle and our senses are wooed by romantic ebb and flow. If, however, you share Elder’s eschewing the Russian school in favour of Nordic coolness and control, this may well be an ideal performance.
The stylistic gap between Sibelius’s First and Third Symphonies is enormous. The Third is a work of entire originality, a precursor towards neo-classicism in music that took another twenty or so years for Stravinsky to call it his own. It also begins Sibelius’s reaction to the scores of Mahler and Richard Strauss.
If exploring the mysteries and complexities of Sibelius’s music it would be wise to start with the Third Symphony. Why? Simply because it displays a simplicity of outline that leads the listener into a new world of sound and feeling. Sibelius dispenses with romantic rhetoric and sets out his plan in the most straightforward way. How he does it is the fascinating part and any conductor has to project the originality of this music. Taken too fast, it loses its mystery and becomes superficial (such as under Anthony Collins); taken too slowly and it becomes lethargic (Barbirolli).
Elder’s relative coolness is a positive asset in the Third. It helps that this recording is taken from a live performance where the players can be stimulated by an audience as well as by its maestro. Elder takes a measured approach, and the stature of this still-underrated symphony gains immeasurably. The pacing of each movement is near ideal, the moments of stasis in the first (fig 5, Tranquillo) and the second (12 bars after fig 6, Tranquillo) generate enormous poetic intent. The innovative finale, fusing various tempos into a structural whole receives a committed performance, which enhances the stature of the composer’s vision for integrating contrasting elements. The emphatic close ends a very satisfying performance of a beautifully crafted work that should make a comeback in our affections, something long overdue.