Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 28 June, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
At the time of writing his First Symphony, Sibelius is quoted as saying about Tchaikovsky, “There is much in that man that I recognise in myself”. He was presumably speaking more about the music than the man! Indeed Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony can be heard to contain features that occur later in Sibelius’s First Symphony, from the opening clarinet idea to the reintroduction of the motto theme at the beginning of the finale. By the time Sibelius wrote his Sixth Symphony he had expunged influences from any near-contemporary composers to build an artistic relationship with masters from the distant past ranging from English Reformation composers such as Tallis and Byrd to the Italian Renaissance such as Palestrina.
Sibelius had been a keen student of this past age of music when studying in Helsinki – his teacher, Wegelius, produced a seminal textbook on the history of music – and Sibelius wrote in a letter to an unknown British correspondent in 1946, “I am very gratified that our own music-loving public has been afforded this opportunity of getting to know British music – for which I have the greatest admiration – with its tradition dating back to the time when the music of Britain ranked highest in the world.”
Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony, with its diaphanous beauty of sound and purity of language, so removed from any contemporary (1923) musical trend, is one of the rarities among the seven symphonies of Sibelius. However, as Sibelius said, it is a “poem” and should be heard as a work rich in feeling and subtle shading of emotions. It remains, possibly, his very finest example of orchestration in which texture and sound are completely indivisible, and note the distance traversed by Sibelius in escaping the late Romantic era typified by Tchaikovsky.
By the 1920s Sibelius was himself a modern master and, despite the vagaries of fashion, has remained so, with the emphasis on “modern”, for most living composers acknowledge the influence of Sibelius one way or another on their work. The Sixth Symphony is not an easy work to perform, and these days there is a tendency to speed through each movement hoping for the numerous felicities to make their mark.
Russell Keable took the opposite approach with an unhurried opening leading to a steady pulse in the main body of the first movement. Thereafter each succeeding movement was unfurled with a measured correctness allowing the mind to absorb the symphonic mastery on display. With the violins sitting antiphonally, Keable allowed the almost-dissonant string part-writing to be heard in its proper context. The Sixth Symphony has no key signature but uses the Dorian mode, the white keyboard notes from D to D, resulting in an archaic mood quite unlike anything else Sibelius wrote. Stravinsky sought much the same tonal palette in his ballet Apollon musagète (scored for strings) a few years later.
Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony has a feeling of timelessness, of unlimited horizons in our imagination, of moods contrasting tranquillity with vehemence. Indeed the finale seems to conjure feelings of continuous apprehension, one set after another with a catastrophic episode leading eventually to the quietest of closures where our eyes, opening after the night-time, herald a peaceful dawn of transcendent beauty. Keable’s achievement was to arrive at this close with a true sense of transfigured liberation: a marvellous performance of a truly wonderful work.
For Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a veritable panorama of emotional highs and lows, Keable set fastish tempos, the KSO, here on top form, responding with some ebullient, explosive playing. The first horn was totally secure with his lovely opening melody in the slow movement, the strings scampered nicely in the third movement, which sounded more like ballet music with Keable’s delightfully light beat, and everyone enjoyed themselves enormously in the rumbustious finale.
This Kensington Symphony Orchestra has had two conductors in fifty years and it was a pleasure to see the orchestra’s founder, Leslie Head, in the audience. Longevity is one thing; standards and musicianship are another. London should treasure the KSO and Russell Keable for the quality of the playing – passionate, warm and intense – and the adventurous choice of repertoire. How nice it is to attend a KSO concert knowing that each will be played with freshness and enthusiasm.