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Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39; Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63
Osmo Vanska conducting the Minnesota Orchestra

Review By Max Westker


  Written in 1899, the Sibelius First Symphony belongs in the select company of great first symphonies. Like the Brahms, Mahler, and Shostakovich, it marks the advent of a major symphonist, and does so in the boldest possible terms. Though composed in sonata form, the opening movement has several daring and original touches. There's the haunting clarinet solo (with timpani accompaniment) that opens the work, the organic way thematic fragments gather force and momentum as they gradually coalesce into a thunderous proclamation, the dying fall that leads directly into the recapitulation. The composer's control of tension is so absolute that he can resolve it with two plucked chords in the strings. The rest of the symphony is just as adventurous: a series of startling contrasts, serene passages interrupted by bursts of elemental violence--or, as one critic put it, "a drunken God tossing lightning-bolts." Once heard, the jackhammer staccato of the scherzo is not soon forgotten. The soaring, song-like anthem that ends the symphony seems to come out of nowhere, but has been carefully prepared for; and so one feels an exhilarating mix of surprise and inevitability.

If the First symphony is expansive and muscular, the Fourth is its polar opposite: severe, deeply introspective, and ambiguous. Using an orchestra hardly bigger than the one Mozart employed, Sibelius explores a narrow range of expression, shades of grey and black, to hypnotic effect. I'm going to let Alex Ross explain why the Sibelius Fourth is one of the most distinct masterpieces of 20th-Century music because he can do a far better job of it than I can. The following is excerpted from his essential collection, The Rest Is Noise.

The narrative of the Fourth is circular rather than linear; it keeps revisiting the same insoluble conflicts. An effort at establishing F major as the key of the initially sunnier-sounding second movement founders on an immovable obstacle in the form of the note B-natural, after which there is a palpable shrug of defeat. The third movement dramatizes an attempt to build, note by note, a solemn six-bar theme of funerary character; the first attempt falters after three bars, the second after five, the third after four, the fourth after three. The fifth attempt proceeds with vigor but seems to go on too long, sprawling through seven bars without coming to a logical conclusion. Finally, the music slows with an audible grinding of the teeth, and the full orchestra plays the theme in a richly harmonized guise. Then uncertainty steals back in. The finale thins out as it goes along, as if random pages of the orchestral parts had blown off the music stands. This is music facing extinction, a premonition of the silence that would envelop the composer two decades later. Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius' biographer, reveals that the middle section of the movement is based on sketches that Sibelius made for a vocal setting of Poe's "The Raven," in a German translation. It is easy to see why a man of Sibelius's psychological makeup would have been drawn to its melancholia. The German translation follows the rhythm of the original, so Sibelius's music can be matched up with lines in Poe's poem. Softly crying flute and oboe lines in the epilogue fit the famous words "Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.' " The symphony closes with blank-faced chords that are given the dynamic marking mezzofortehalf-loud. The instruction is surprising. Most of the great Romantic symphonies end with fortissimo affirmations. Wagner operas and Strauss tone poems often close pianissimo, whether in blissful or tragic mood. Sibelius's Fourth ends not with a bang or a whimperbut with a leaden thud.

Some conductors like to take a Romantic approach to the First, as if it had been composed by Tchaikovsky. Bernstein, to take a notable example, gives the music an almost Slavic weightiness. But Vanska is having none of it. His performance is lean, taut and propulsive, and emphasizes the youthful daring of the music, its wildness and rage. In the Fourth this same tightly organized approach gives the music a coherence that underscores its structure and intensifies the drama. Frankly, I prefer more warmth and breadth in my First, an altogether spookier Fourth. I actually like the Bernstein recordings: his early performance with the New York Philharmonic and his later (and more extreme) one with the Vienna Philharmonic. These might be wrongheaded perhaps, but both are lit by an incandescent flame. My favorite Fourth has long been the version by Paavo Berglund and the Finnish Radio Orchestra (hard to find but well worth the effort). Abravanel, Oramo, Sarasatre, and Segerstam provide acceptable alternatives. When it comes to the Fourth, there are definitely recordings to avoid. Rattle, Maazel, Barbirolli and Bloomstadt might all be experienced hands when it comes to conducting Sibelius symphonies, but their Fourths are simply dreadful. Taken on its own terms, this new recording is easy to recommend: the interpretations are compelling, the playing committed and brilliant, and the SACD sound state-of-the-art.





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