Sunday, November 01, 2009

Sunday Classics: An intrepid voice from the rugged North -- Jan Sibelius


The concluding rondo of Sibelius's Violin Concerto gets a rousing performance by David Oistrakh with the Moscow Radio Symphony under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, February 1966. A different Oistrakh recording of the piece was one of my first three classical LPs -- but totally by accident. What I wanted on that record was what the world considered the "filler" work -- see below.

by Ken

I worry -- okay, I worry a lot -- about the lack of exposure our young (and not-so-young) folk get to classical music. Damned if I know what to do about it, but this week I've been remembering how much music has stayed with me from first exposure in a "music appreciation" ordeal I and my eighth-grade classmates were subjected to and made fun of.

I'm not sure it had much impact on the other kids, though. It made a difference that I'd already had some exposure. We always had a piano in our house (my mother had played), and I'd taken lessons, though not very fruitfully; I wasn't much for practicing. We had my mother's old classical 78s, and even a few classical LPs. Perhaps most important, there was no open hostility to classical music in our household. (I shudder to think what it must be like now when culture generally and classical music in particular are free targets for derision.)

That summer I got to pick out my first own classical LPs, my first stereo LPs (though I'm not sure I even had a stereo record player yet!), as a graduation present from my grandmother. The three LPs I picked were all based on things I'd heard in that silly music appreciation ordeal. I would add that they're all exceptionally beautiful records, which I still listen to with great pleasure.

They all featured the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, which indeed became one of my early classical passions. I not only bought their records but went to some of their New York concerts. (By then we were living in New York.) And again it's a passion that has stayed with me. I have to admit that deep down I still kind of wish every orchestra could sound like the Philadelphia did in the Ormandy years.

So what were the three records? First there was Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, the first Ormandy-Philadelphia stereo version -- a piece, a performance, and a recording job I still adore. Then there were two LPs bought for pieces by Finland's master composer, Jan Sibelius (1865-1957): his stirring patriotic symphonic poem Finlandia (1899-1900) and one of the Four Legends from the Kalevala (the Finnish national epic), The Swan of Tuonela (1895).

With Finlandia we find ourselves smack back in the "Age of Nationalism," which we last visited in the Czech realm of Smetana and Dvořák. It just took the wave of national liberation longer to reach the northerly Finns, literally squeezed throughout their history between Sweden and Russia. At this point, Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia, and listeners quickly picked up on the nationalistic fomenting going on in Sibelius's symphonic poem. (Titles given consideration, en route to Finlandia, included The Awakening of Finland and multiple forms of Fatherland.)

It's straightforwardly enough put together: a dark and brooding, even menacing initial section; a more urgent working out of some of this same material announced by the trumpets at 2:47; at 3:22 a newly confident, even celebratory section ushered in by a strangely striding five-beat figure; all resolving at 5:10 into the famous hymnlike tune stated first by the woodwinds, then taken over at 6:04 by the strings.

Finlandia, Op. 26

Philadelphia Orchestra,
Eugene Ormandy, cond.
Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded c1969

Now this is a terrifically urgent performance by Ormandy and the Philadelphians, but as it happens it's not "my" Ormandy-Philadelphia Finlandia, which dates from about a decade earlier. "My" Finlandia, in fact, was a super-spectacular, in which the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was enlisted to join in at the string restatement of the hymn tune singing an adaptation of the composer's 1941 adaptation of patriotic words to his famous tune. Wow!

I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I listened to that performance. Possibly the people around me at the time can provide a more accurate count.

At the same time I was more or less forced to listen as well to music by Grieg (the Peer Gynt Suite No. 1) and Hugo Alfvén (the Swedish Rhapsody No. 1), because that's what was on the record I had to buy to get the Ormandy Finlandia. You see, rather to my surprise, on the famous day of that shopping spree, I discovered that I would have to acquire two separate LPs to get both Finlandia and The Swan of Tuonela, about 17 minutes' worth of music! Just think of the additional begging, wheedling, and cajoling I had to engage in to get my grandmother to spring for three records instead of the agreed-upon two.

I guess I wore her down, though, because I walked out of the store with all three. And I loved The Swan of Tuonela. (I suppose it's just a coincidence that we're working our way through the Greatest Moments for English Horn, following our encounter with the legendary Largo of Dvořák's New World Symphony. Can Marguerite's aria "D'amour l'ardente flamme" from Berlioz' Damnation of Faust be far behind?)

"The Swan of Tuonela" by South African painter Gabriel de Jongh

The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 44, No. 2
Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond.
Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded c1959

Now this actually was my Swan, though we could have gone with the remake made for that same 1969-ish LP. (What? Ormandy's Finlandia and Swan on the same LP??? Is there somebody I can report this to, even if it is, oh, 44 years later?)

In either of those Ormandy Swans we would be hearing English hornist Louis Rosenblatt (1928-2009). I don't suppose his is exactly a household name, but he was the Philadelphia Orchestra's English horn principal for 36 years, from 1959 until his retirement in 1995, and he died just this past August. (He's seen here, sort of, with his Philadelphia oboe colleagues around 1972.) He would in fact record the Swan solo with Ormandy yet again, another decade later, when Ormandy did all of the Four Legends from the Kalevala for EMI.

Rosenblatt seems to have been more or less shanghaied into the English horn job. In 1959 he was hired to be Philadelphia's assistant oboe principal, the job he wanted, with a chance to succeed to the principal's chair. But suddenly the English horn principal, Rosenblatt's old teacher John Minsker (who had played the solo in Ormandy's mono Philadelphia Swans), decided to retire, and Ormandy, left without an English horn principal with some important solos coming up that season, decided that Rosenblatt would be switched. The switch seems to have taken.

I wonder if I was ever aware of that 1969-ish Ormandy-Philadelphia LP that included both Finlandia and The Swan. By then I guess I would just have found it ironic, because by then I had developed relationships with all that other music on my two LPs, including what filled up the rest of the one that contained The Swan.

I guess it started when I became wary of continuing to plunk the phonograph needle down (and yes, what I had then was surely a "needle" rather than a "stylus") in the middle of side 2 trying to hit the start of The Swan, especially since my record player of the time probably had a tracking force measurable in ounces rather than grams. So, not entirely of my own accord, I was prompted to explore whatever the heck it was that preceded "my" Swan on side 2. That turned out to be the music in our video clip, the finale of Sibelius's Violin Concerto, played by David Oistrakh, accompanied by -- who else? -- Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphpia Orchestra. It sounded like this:

Violin Concerto, Op. 47: iii. Allegro ma non tanto
David Oistrakh, violin; Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond.
Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Dec. 21, 1959

For music lovers who weren't there, it's hard to re-create the sensation created with the gradual dribble of great musicians dribbled out to the West by the Soviet government, known mostly from poor-quality records made from tapes three or four generations removed from the Soviet masters. Oistrakh first visited the U.S. in 1955, and his enormous personal charm made him a prized visitor, taken advantage of by both Columbia and RCA. Columbia scheduled a recording of the Sibelius Concerto when he played it in Philadelphia in December 1959, and that was what was spread out across the remaining side and a half of my Swan of Tuonela LP.

Once I discovered the delicious rondo of the Violin Concerto, I always listened to it along with The Swan. In time I developed more curiosity about side 1. Oh, I'm sure I had listened to the whole concerto; it just hadn't made much impression on me, and I hadn't yet learned that just one hearing doesn't necessarily. Now the opening of the piece seems to me one of the most gripping starts to any piece of music I know.

Eventually the Sibelius Violin Concerto became one of my most-loved pieces, and in time I found a recording that grabbed me in a way that no other had (or since has). The soloist was a staggeringly gifted young Frenchwoman named Ginette Neveu.

There are irreplaceable musicians we tend to think of as tragic because of the tragedy of their premature death -- the cellist Emanuel Feuermann (born 1902, died of an infection following surgery in 1942), the British hornist Dennis Brain (born 1921, died in a one-car crash on Sept. 21, 1957), the American pianist William Kapell (born 1922, died in a plane crash outside San Francisco, while returning from an Australian tour, on Oct. 29, 1953) -- but whose art itself was anything but tragic in tone. With Neveu, who was born in 1919 and died in a plane crash in the Azores on Oct. 27, 1949, I'm not so sure. It's much less of a stretch to think of her as a "tragic artist."

Neveu's was always a dark art. There was plenty of luster to her tone, but the disposition was, shall we say, distinctly not-cheerful. That's an art made to order for the gloom-shrouded world of the first movement of Sibelius's Violin Concerto. I wanted you to hear at least that from her 1945 recording, then couldn't resist including the rest. (Don't feel obliged to listen to all of it, though.)

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47

Ginette Neveu, violin;
Philharmonia Orchestra,
Walter Süsskind, cond.
EMI, recorded Nov. 21, 1945

i. Allegro moderato

ii. Adagio di molto

iii. Allegro ma non tanto


Since those days I've obviously spent a deal of time exploring Sibelius's good-sized and varied output. What has emerged for me is closely related to the composer's original standing as a voice for his country's struggle for liberation. I can only guess how Finns relate to his music, but I hear a voice of the rugged, lonely North. Setting aside the fact that in present-day Finland well over 10 percent of the population lives in Helsinki (with another large chunk clustered nearby in the south), for me the Finns are a hardy people living close to nature, close to the land, a land of astonishing physical beauty, but a challenging, even punishing environment that keeps basic issues of survival at the forefront of its rugged inhabitants' attention.

This is Lake Tuusulan, alongside which Sibelius built Ainola, the home into which he and his wife Aino moved in 1904 and lived out their lives -- Jan till 1956, Aino till 1969. The township of Järvenpää at the time the Sibeliuses relocated there has been described by Erik Tawaststjerna as "to a large extent untouched countryside; foals and sheep almost nosed their way into the house, and from time to time an elk majestically bestrode the grounds."

At this point we really need to hear Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, a piece that speaks intimately about those basic questions of existence. I don't know whether the finale will "read" out of context, in a symphony that is inescapably "cyclical," in that its musical materials are worked continuously through the piece, but here it is, played by an alarmingly young-looking Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony in Stockholm in January 1987:

Now I've heard significantly more powerful performances by wholly non-Scandinavian forces -- by that noble Scotsman Alexander Gibson, for example, and the East German Kurt Sanderling, and our own Leonard Bernstein (early on with the New York Philharmonic, later with the Vienna Philharmonic) -- but it's interesting to hear the Finnish Salonen and his Swedish cohorts. (And despite the uneasy history between the Finns and the Swedes, in which most of the uneasiness after all lies with the Finns, Sibelius is probably as much a national composer in Sweden as in Finland. Swedish, after all, is the language he spoke, and in which he wrote most of his large quantity of songs.) There is a part of that life experience, given such eloquent voice, that is a part of me, and probably of everyone I know, which accounts in some measure for what gives the music its particular power -- in the same way that I can identify with and be nourished by the "Czechness" of Smetana (to whom we're going to be returning one of these weeks, by the way) and Dvořák.

In the real world, nationalism is usually a double-edged sword, sometimes bringing liberation, all too often bringing mayhem and destruction. In the hands of great artists, however, it can help us sort out who we are and what we're all doing here.


I've watched that Salonen clip of the finale of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony a bunch of times now, and each time it leaves me less happy. We see the guy looking very pretty, flapping his arms earnestly, as if he thinks it will make something happen, only not a whole lot does. So here are the three conductors I mentioned above: Sir Alexander Gibson (1926-1995, as far as I know his last recording of the piece, from his Chandos Sibelius symphony cycle, not currently listed at sane prices), Kurt Sanderling (born 1912, from his East German Deutsche Schallplatten/Berlin Classics cyclewith the Berlin Symphony), and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990, from the cycle he was working on for DGat the time of his death, having recorded Nos. 1, 2, 5, and 7).

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82: iii. Allegro molto

Scottish National Orchestra, Sir Alexander Gibson, cond.
Chandos, recorded in 1982

Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Kurt Sanderling, cond.
Berlin Classics, recorded December 1971

Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.
DG, recorded live, September 1987


I guess we need to say something about those final, er, 30 years, after the symphonic poem Tapiola, in which Sibelius essentially composed nothing. It clearly wasn't from want of trying, and seems to have amounted to a gigantic case of writer's block, as in the similar if less extreme (but still extremely public) case of England's Edward Elgar. We might also factor in a changed musical environment in which the composers didn't feel able to perform -- and that both composers had, consciously or not, exhausted the musical language available to them, as I've been suggesting happened generally over the course of the middle of the 20th century.


In the form of a "where'd that come from?" moment, rather as we did with the Scherzo capriccioso of Dvořák, here is the Intermezzo, which despite its name is the first movement of Sibelius's little Karelia Suite. Although there happens to be a perfectly fine Ormandy recording, let's listen for once to somebody else. Here is the Estonian-born Neeme Järvi, an eminent Sibelian, with the Göteborg Symphony, from another of those amazing-value Trio sets, this one on DG,innocently called Sibelius Tone Poems, but in fact gathering not just Sibelius's many wonderful symphonic poems but lots of occasional and incidental and other music, a full 214 minutes' worth of his nonsymphonic orchestral works.

Karelia Suite, Op. 11: i. Intermezzo
Göteborg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi, cond.
DG, recorded Dec. 1992


In case you're wondering about the rest of the Oistrakh-Ormandy recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and perhaps wondering how different it is from the Neveu-Süsskind performance. I happen to have the first two movements right here:

i. Allegro moderato

ii. Adagio di molto


Let's start with that above-cited Järvi DG Trio set, which takes care of so much of Sibelius's nonsymphonic orchestral work, including Finlandia and The Swan of Tuonela, in such fine performances at such low cost.

For the symphonies, if you want to go for all seven, there are a number of excellent choices. The beautifully recorded Maazel-Vienna Philharmonic setholds up remarkably well. Or you might tread more gently, starting with the Philips "twofer" setwell-filled with Colin Davis's lovely Boston Symphony recordings of the four most approachable symphonies, Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5; then you can add the companion "twofer,"which not only contains the missing symphonies (Nos. 3, 6, and 7, of course) but throws in Davis-London Symphony performances of the Violin Concerto (with Salvatore Accardo), Finlandia, The Swan of Tuonela, and Sibelius's last symphonic poem, indeed last real composition, Tapiola. My word, a "Basic Orchestral Sibelius" right there!

For the Violin Concerto, the Oistrakh-Rozhdestvensky video performanceis available commercially from EMI, along with video performances of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos. The Oistrakh-Ormandy Sibelius recording is available (without The Swan) in a weird but worthwhile Sony coupling,with the utterly unrelated recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by Zino Francescatti with Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony. By the way, if anyone has any suggestions as to how to file this disc, which doesn't properly belong under Beethoven or Sibelius or Francescatti or Oistrakh, I'd be grateful for them. Really. I can never find the damned thing. I didn't find it for this project until I'd given up.

Let me just suggest one other recording of the Violin Concerto, in part because I see it's available dirt-cheap ($6.98 list!): a smoldering, rather Neveu-like performance by the lustrous-toned Ida Haendel,with the Finnish Paavo Berglund conducting the Bournemouth Symphony.

For a sampling of the songs, you might try this CD by the Finnish baritone Tom Krause,which offers 25 songs by Sibelius and 8 by Richard Strauss, though presumably without vocal texts. Let's say you can dig those up online.


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At 11:34 AM, Anonymous DeanOR said...

Give me a string of gray Winter days in Oregon, Sibelius alternating with immersion in one of the great mystery novels coming out of Scandinavia, and I can really get into "dark and brooding" instead of fighting it. I emerge with a more complex emotional state than "grim"; it is nuanced, rich, and rewarding. Works for me. I can't see this particular form of moody introspection becoming trendy, although rock does have its own version of darkly brooding.
A friend once remarked that the best music is ethnic. That kinda startled me, but when I thought about the great variety of my favorite music, I saw a lot of truth in it.
I guess I can understand symphonic composers drying up. Where do you go with that form after the great works of Sibelius, even if you are Sibelius?
Looking forward to sunshine forecasted for this afternoon.

At 11:50 AM, Anonymous DeanOR said...

The CD of the violin concerto that I have, and love, is Ormandy and the Philadelphia with a very young Dylana Jensen playing violin.
Also Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performing Symphony No. 2 in D and Scene with Cranes from Kuolema.

At 12:21 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Hi, Dean, and thanks for the interesting comments. I love the "ethnic music" observation. That's music that speaks most directly from who the creators and intended listeners are -- and in that mysterious way I tried to articulate, some piece of that is part of all of us.

I do remember the Jensen-Ormandy Sibelius Concerto -- or anyway I remember that it exists. I don't remember the performance at all. I really should listen to it again. Ormandy certainly had a terrific feeling for Sibelius.

Those 30 years of un-creation must have been hard on Sibelius, but he had already stockpiled a good lifetime's worth of achievement, and gained wide recognition for it. I like to think that made it easier.


At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

"I guess we need to say something about those final, er, 30 years, after the symphonic poem Tapiola, in which Sibelius essentially composed nothing."

Ken, I'd have to get out my sources, but I distinctly recall reading that according to Sibelius' daughter, he had a finished manuscript of another symphony, and had promised its premiere to Koussevitzky in the early 1930s. But he was extremely self-critical, and ultimately destroyed it.

Of course, that's still essentially nothing, as you write. Nothing survives, and he didn't write anything but that long-vanished symphony.

In any case, very nice essay. I'm a great fan of Neveu's, so I'm delighted to see you included her. You're right: there really was some kind of dark fire in her art.

At 9:40 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Nah, B, I don't place much stock in those manuscripts you can't bring yourself to show to anyone. Heck, even I've used that ploy with persistent editors. We know that in Elgar's case, when the pressure to produce the long-promised Third Symphony became too intense, he kind of fibbed about what he'd written. It was what his musical colleagues wanted to hear, and what he himself no doubt wanted to believe.

I don't want to minimize how horrible this must have been for the silent composers. As I've said earlier, I have to hope that Sibelius derived appropriate satisfaction from the body of work he had produced. It may have gone in and out of "fashion," but I'm not much interested in musical fashion. I'm confident that Sibelius's music will continue to stand the test of time.


At 8:20 AM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

Well, either way--whether Sibelius did write another symphony, or didn't--we haven't got it, and you're absolutely right: speculation is pretty silly at this point. What we do have is music that, despite all the snide comments of the dodecaphonists has survived into the 21st century as great music. Can't say that about the Webern crowd, or the ones that throw dice to figure out their next notes, or the ones who pound two pieces of siding together.

"We know that in Elgar's case, when the pressure to produce the long-promised Third Symphony became too intense, he kind of fibbed about what he'd written...."

Well, yeah, but he did write quite a lot of his Third, as I'm sure you know, enough so that a reasonably intelligent editor was able to craft it together with some intelligence, guesswork, and a lot of effort. Is it actually Elgar's Third? Not at all, because we miss all the editing that would have been done after everything was written out. But still, it sounds damn good.

At 12:41 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I think we're in solid agreement on the big points, B, but I still have to disagree about the supposed "Elgar Third Symphony," which even the "arranger" comes darned close to acknowledging in the fine print is just this side of a hoax. It's just bits and scraps Elgar left behind -- in reality the very stuff that he himself knew amounted to nothing, which tormented him until his death -- whipped into a vaguely Elgarian concoction. I believe the correct musicological term is "phony baloney."

After all, those scraps were known for decades and rightly ignored. In effect, they had to wait for the people who knew better to die off before being reborn as revelations. It's musical necrophilia, and a posthumous shame that Elgar did nothing to deserve.


At 12:27 PM, Blogger Ben Garrison said...

I don't think Sibelius had writer's block. I think he simply ran out of things to say. He wanted to take the next step with his composing, but all the steps were already taken and he didn't know where to go. If he couldn't build upon what he had accomplished already, I think he'd rather have silence. And with Tapiola, we saw great stretches of silence creeping into his music.

One of the greatest pieces of music ever written was his 7th. The finale in particular. In it he says what many composers take hours to say. (I'm thinking of Mahler and Bruckner--they come close, but their music took hours to accomplish what Sibelius achieved in under 5 minutes). It is simple, beautiful, moving, profound AND it takes his musical expression to a mountain peak--and it keeps going up from there. It is perfection. What could he possibly write that would improve on that?

I enjoyed your Sibelius musings very much.

--Ben Garrison

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