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CLASSICAL  April 2009

CLASSICAL April 2009

Subject:

Sibelius Tone Poems

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 10 Apr 2009 09:20:20 -0700

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text/plain

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[i Read online: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/d/dgg75522a.php ]

Jean Sibelius
Tone Poems

*  Karelia Suite, op. 11
*  Luonnotar, op. 70
*  Andante festivo
*  The Oceanides, op. 73
*  King Christian II, op. 27
*  Finlandia, op. 26
*  Pohjola's Daughter, op. 49
*  Night Ride and Sunrise, op. 55
*  4 Legends from Kalevala, op. 22
*  En Saga, op. 9
*  Spring Song, op. 16
*  4 excerpts from Kuolema
*  The Bard, op. 64
*  Tapiola, op. 112

Soile Isokoski, soprano
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Jarvi
DG 477552-2 Total Time: 213:59 (3 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: A real affinity for Sibelius.

In the days before recordings, there used to be something called theater
(or incidental) music, played by live orchestras employed by, appropriately
enough, theaters.  Plays in the tonier venues were seldom given without
music, in fact.  Much of Sibelius's orchestral music belongs to this
category, among other reasons, because he needed the money to support
himself and his family and theaters paid.  Fortunately, many of his
theater projects actually coincided with what inspired him, mostly Finnish
folklore.


The early stuff, like the Karelia Suite (1893), tends to conventional
song and dance forms.  However, even here, one notes a composer who
naturally thinks symphonically.  Sibelius's music makes one ask, "What
comes next?" His phrases tend to end with an invitation to extension,
like the tenon of a Lego tile.  However, even scores written before,
say, the First Symphony (1899), like En Saga, break out of standard
forms.  For me, Sibelius writes "jagged" music, music that sounds either
like it steals in out of nowhere or as if someone made a long, diagonal
rip in the score to the end.  If you ever saw the half-buried Statue of
Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes movie, that's my image.  Even
the phrases of the popular chorale of Finlandia don't end, so much as
they break off - torsos of music.  The fully-mature work, like the concert
aria Luonnotar (1913), runs even more idiosyncratically.  For example,
Luonnotar reaches an almost violent level, as it describes a spirit
giving birth to the world, but in no time at all ends quietly, sparely,
and bleakly.  There's no "rounded" summing-up.  It ends when it ends,
in the way it has to.

Listening to this orgy of Sibelius, I was struck this time by how often
the image of the headlong ride fired his imagination.  Pohjola's Daughter
and Night Ride and Sunrise deal with this directly, but once you hear
them, you immediately recognize the same kind of music in the symphonies
and in other tone poems, like "Lemminkainen's Return" from the 4 Legends.
Indeed, I think of Pohjola's Daughter as something very near the center
of Sibelius's musical imagination.  However, none of these scores resembles
the others all that much.  Night Ride and Sunrise, for example, obsesses
- in a way that anticipates somebody like Steve Reich - on a single
rhythmic idea for much of its length.  It's a wild piece, with odd screams
and cries thrown in, something that still lets you appreciate the radical
nature of Sibelius's art, even though so much of his music has become
standard rep.  The 4 Legends come from very early in Sibelius's career
(he revised them around the time of the First Symphony).  Some Sibelians,
in an excess of enthusiasm, have considered them a kind of Eighth Symphony,
which does the composer's actual symphonies a huge disservice.  The
Legends sometimes show traces of wobbly architecture (the third movement,
"Lemminkainen in Tuonela," especially).  In some places, they seem cobbled
together.  However, here and there foreshadows of later work fly by -
the Second Symphony in "Lemminkainen and the Island Maidens," for example,
or parts of Finlandia and even the Fifth Symphony - and "The Swan of
Tuonela" certainly ranks as one of the composer's most beautiful musical
images.

On the other hand, I've never been much of a fan of the "Valse triste"
or much of the other Kuolema music.  I do like the so-called "Scene with
Cranes," a haunted little number. I think I may have bought one of the
earliest recordings of it (it surfaced in 1973), when Berglund included
it in his bombshell Kullervo (was it the recording premiere?) for EMI.
Kullervo in fact turned me on to Sibelius's music.

The Bard (1913) strikes me as one of those diamonds in the composer's
output perenially awaiting discovery.  It always seemed to me of a piece
with the world of the Fourth Symphony: terse, spare, enigmatic.  The
Bard delivers a huge punch in very few notes and not a lot of volume.
One finds the same terseness, almost to the point of obsession, in the
later Tapiola (1926), which (like Night Ride and Sunrise) wrings intensity
from practically a single motive. The liner notes talk about minimalism.
If so, it's pretty maximal minimalism, but one sees the writer's point.
Sibelius pushes his idiom to do far more with much less than something
like the Fifth Symphony.

I also discovered a piece new to me: the Spring Song - an early work,
written in 1894 and revised for publication in 1902.  The title led me
to expect a little salon piece.  However, the music proclaims a big
personality, unexpectedly deep.  Sibelius at one point subtitled it
"The Sadness of Spring," but even that unfairly limits the music, which
expresses a wide range of feeling.  I find less sadness in it than rapt
contemplation.

Beecham and Barbirolli represent for me Sibelius playing at its most
exciting and insightful, but I can't deny that Jarvi and his Gothenburgers
have this music in their bones.  Truthfully, this surprised me a bit,
since I didn't care for their slapdash Grieg at all.  In the Sibelius
set, only the Tapiola disappointed me - too slow, as if pokiness meant
profundity.  The rest of it rocks.  Jarvi even made the "Valse triste"
sound positively intelligent, investing it with the voluptuous intensity
the Jarnefelt drama demands.  Sibelius makes nothing easy for his
interpreters.  Night Ride, for example, can easily bore you with its
insistence.  Jarvi finds the overall arch of these scores.  Jarvi and
his orchestra sweep along, and the DG sound - simultaneously full and
clear - gives them something extra without faking them up.

By the way, this is a DG "triad": three CDs at some reduced price.  I've
seen the set listed at about $24.00 (US), and a quick tour of the Internet
tells me I can get a new copy for $16.00, or a little more than $5.00
per CD.

Steve Schwartz

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