Voyevoda Symphonic ballad, Op.78
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 16 March, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
A large audience assembled for this concert. It would be nice to think such eagerness was for the Sibelius symphony. However, given various departures during the interval, the high turnout was to hear Simon Trpčeski play Rachmaninov.
Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted first a Tchaikovsky rarity, The Voyevoda, a late ‘symphonic ballad’ distinguished mainly by an extraordinary premonition near the end on brass of the finale of the Pathétique Symphony. Tchaikovsky described Voyevode as “filth” after the premiere and destroyed the score. Thanks to a reconstruction from the parts we can enjoy some unusual musical material. The Philharmonia responded to Saraste’s vigorous direction with aplomb and made the best of this colourful and interesting work.
Then Simon Trpčeski played Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, a work so difficult to perform with a sense of freshness. The opening chords were played with a gentle touch and Trpčeski’s rapid finger-work and quicksilver style responded to the emotional demands of this most romantic of piano concertos. The performance was fleet of foot and light of tone and, as such, had a convincing authority. The orchestra, though, played as if in a trance, with little emotional contact either with the music or the soloist, and Saraste could do little more than bring out various details in the score.
For those who submitted to the rigors of Sibelius 4, the rewards were great indeed.
In this work it is almost as if Sibelius deliberately seeks to cause offence given his complete lack of interest in following contemporary symphonic norms. The sound world is dark, austere, and devoid of any symphonic pretension that affords comfort in the ears of the listener.
The story has been perpetrated that the work is the creation of his health worries following an earlier cancer scare. This hardly does the intellectual content of this remarkable work justice. Rather, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the Fourth Symphony represents Sibelius’s attempt to confront modern trends. He had studied and listened to Schoenberg with the help of his friend Busoni and admired the compression and tonal severity of Schoenberg’s post-romantic works written up to 1910. The obvious role model for Sibelius would have been Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1, cast in four inter-linked movements. What Sibelius stood against was the opposite trend of the time as typified by the expansionist tendencies of Mahler and Richard Strauss. Sibelius himself commented: “There is nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about my Fourth Symphony.”
This context helps to understand why he wrote what he wrote. The reason this is the least popular of Sibelius’s symphonies lies in its uncompromising attitude. Although it is tightly organised in its thematic and tonal structure, it offers few moments of gratification. The linkage in his symphony was emphasised in this concert by Saraste, who left no pause between the opening two and final two movements (each pair shares the same note at the end and beginning of these movements). Saraste conducted, from memory, with massive authority. Everything was wonderfully alive – it is all too easy to make this work sound slow and moribund. The Philharmonia responded with wonderfully expressive playing allowing the haunted tone in the music to make its maximum effect. It was as if Saraste was creating the music as it unfolded, inexorable in its symphonic progress.
The wonderful slow movement moves towards a superb statement of a theme that had been heard previously only in fragmentary form. But it dissolves into silence. Likewise, the finale surely attempts to recover an emotional poise after the darkness heard previously but, despite Sibelius trying everything in his musical armoury including the sound of sudden sparks from a glockenspiel and a superb chorale passage for strings that seems to beg for supplication, the end merely disappears without any preparation or warning: ‘This is all I have to say’ might have been Sibelius’s comment. The ending of this masterpiece is a pause; such inconclusiveness disconcerts and disorientates. But for those willing to probe and concentrate on pure music, Sibelius 4 has riches in abundance. Saraste showed it in its finest light and this was a magnificent performance.
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