Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Jean Sibelius

On my return home after a spell in hospital, I have embarked on a mini- Sibelius festival. Which is a bit odd, since Jean Sibelius has rarely featured in my listening repertoire for many years (apart from the violin concerto), and equally odd in that my listening had recently moved away from orchestral music in favour of chamber music, and solo instruments. Whatever: it's wall to wall Sibelius at the moment, with all seven symphonies receiving a well-deserved airing. The second, fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies are familiar fare, the other three less so. My current listening is confined to LSO Live recordings made by Colin Davis more than a decade or so ago. The LSO knows the music backwards, the recorded sound is not bad at all, and Davis's conducting is right for Sibelius (even if we have him singing along with the orchestra in the fifth symphony).

In England, Thomas Beecham espoused the cause of Sibelius early on; in the 1950s and 60s, Herbert von Karajan continued the cause, somewhat unusually for a German; Sibelius was popular in Scandinavia, in Russia and in Britain – perhaps also in America – but had made little impact in Germany, and pretty well none at all in France or Italy. Sibelius's music is music of the North, with icy winds and freezing frost. The second and fifth symphonies have become almost popular (a Frenchman, Pierre Monteux, made a very fine recording of the second symphony back in 1958, again with the LSO). I grew up in my distant teens with the sixth and seventh symphonies (Philharmonia under von Karajan) and still have a soft spot for these two; like a long draft of pure, cool, spring water. The earlier Sibelius symphonies still show his debt to Tchaikovsky and the Russians; the later symphonies are pure Nordic Sibelius. Many Beecham Sibelius recordings are still available, as are the recordings made by von Karajan, first with the Philharmonia, then with the Berlin Philharmonic — I prefer the earlier Philharmonia recordings, where von Karajan was less obsessed with pure, silky sound, and the Philharmonia was at its peak in the 1950s with Klemperer and von Karajan in and out of the recording studios and concert halls, all presided over by Walter Legge. I even have a recording conducted by Furtwängler of En Saga (1943, Berlin Philharmonic) and, in the same year, he conducted Georg Kulenkampff in the violin concerto. Praga Digital is currently re-issuing re-vamped transfers of the Karajan-Philharmonia symphonies five, six, and seven. I have my name down.

And for the violin concerto? I have 56 different recordings, the classics being the Heifetz and the Neveu recordings from earlier in the last century. Pretty well every violinist that ever drew a bow has recorded the work, which has joined the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos at the top of the A-list. My modern choice would probably be one of the two recordings with Lisa Batiashvili playing. Or maybe Vadim Repin (I have no less than six different recordings of Repin playing this work).

Sibelius avoided the gigantism and long-windedness that characterised much of the music at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth; Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Elgar all wrote music that, arguably, often goes on just too long. Most of Sibelius's symphonies come in comfortably at around 30 minutes each; a good listening span. In self-imposed musical exile after his seventh symphony, he shunned the sterile cul-de-sac of the serialists such as Schönberg, Berg and their acolytes, fortunately for his music and his future reputation. My mini- Sibelius festival over, I'll nevertheless not re-shelve the CDs but will keep them by me. I value all seven Sibelius symphonies, even the fourth that proves that the Russians do not have a monopoly on musical pessimism and gloom.


Björn Westberg said...

Dear music friend,
Instead of Davis etc in Sibelius listen to Segerstam in Helsinki, Berglund in East Berlin and Garaguly in East Germany. All so much better and more involving etc.
Best regards,
Björn Westberg, Stockholm, Sweden

PS But you are right concerning Lisa Batiasvhili in for instance Sibelius, especially her latest version of the violin concerto.

Harry Collier said...

Thanks for the comment, Björn. In due course, I shall investigate. I chose Davis mainly for practical reasons; if you sit down and want to listen to all seven symphonies, he's an adequate choice. Finding "the best" of each of the seven is something of a challenge.