Images pour orchestre [Gigues; Ibéria; Rondes des printemps]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 12 June, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Debussy and Sibelius actually met – in London in 1909. Sibelius thought highly of the Frenchman’s art and had been aware of his music from a few years earlier. Debussy’s views on Sibelius’s music are less well documented. At first glance these composers do not seem to have a lot in common but closer acquaintance with their individual abilities display quite striking resemblances, the main one being to de-couple from the heavy influence of Wagner.
In this respect they are quite apart from two other contemporary giants, Strauss and Mahler, whose music stayed true, in essence, to Wagner’s ambition for expansion. Another similarity between Debussy and Sibelius refers to their liking for developing melodic fragments into bigger statements. Debussy was never the symphonist that Sibelius became and Sibelius did not create such a loose melange of sounds, often erroneously described as Impressionistic (a term Debussy disliked), apart from The Oceanides, which surely rivals Debussy’s La mer.
Coupling Debussy’s Images and Sibelius’s Second Symphony for this concert showed both the composers’ similarities and differences, though, by the end of the afternoon both had been heard to be consummate masters in expressing depth of feeling.
Images followed the ‘symphonic sketches’ of La mer and represent a much freer imagination, using three national musical styles to express a particular state of mind. Hence Debussy prefers to mull-over a mood. This produces a peculiar kind of stasis, which can be counterproductive in a performance where emotion and fantasy are lacking. Jansons and his orchestra maintained a high level of interest both through the sheer quality of the playing and the vibrancy of approach emanating from the conductor’s free-flowing, economic and wonderfully expressive technique. This account of Images was full of subtle ebb and flow.
Debussy wrote superb music: rich, satisfying, never cloying and vibrantly alive as well as deeply enigmatic and shadowy. Sibelius composed from a different tradition, indeed from a direction where there was no tradition apart from what he learnt in his student travels. Hence his important works, of which the seven symphonies are the backbone, conjure up a very different world from that of his contemporaries. When played with insight and conviction, a major Sibelius work invokes a sense of emotional fulfilment due to the extreme identification between different feelings: those of the composer and those of the listener. This performance of the Second Symphony captured this often-weird sensation to perfection.
Jansons explored the work’s emotional terrain to the most extraordinary degree. What used to be considered a work of patriotic fervour is now heard from a completely different perspective. Illness and bereavement in the family drove Sibelius to the edge of a nervous breakdown and the turmoil, terror, sense of isolation and ultimate sadness are revealed in this huge panoramic canvas, which only relents into a sense of triumph-over-adversity at the close. Such was the intensity and utter belief in the work that it seemed that this great orchestra and Jansons have been playing this music for music. The freshness and engagement of the musicians helped make this performance a revelation. The Orchestra’s return to the Barbican in January next year is keenly anticipated.