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JEAN SIBELIUS: The Symphonies, An Introduction and comparison of recordings.   by Gerald Fenech


As one of the giants of musical imagery this century, Sibelius' reputation rests chiefly on his magnificent symphonies, seven utterly beguiling and fascinating creations, all with their particular points of grandeur and originality. Of course, other Sibelius works clamour for attention, compositions such as the Violin Concerto, most of the later symphonic poems (especially Tapiola) and incidental music all have qualities which show the masterbrushes of a gifted artist. This survey is not intended to provide any scholarly or technical appreciation of the works in question, it is rather an appreciation of the musical structures and to fuel interest within the would be collector to experience the magic and qualities that permeate these superb works.

The first two symphonies - post-Tchaikovskian influences, getting to grips.

If one can discount the early choral symphony, 'Kullervo' (well represented by Berglund (EMI) and Salonen (Sony), Sibelius' first symphonic achievment is his broodingly romanticised First Symphony. It is a beautiful four-movement work full of deep longing and contains that familiar sense of Nordic picture paiting in musical blocks, a feature that runs through all of the composers' works like a leitmotif. The first movement begins with those shimmering strings, almost Brucknerian charactersitics but develops with marvelous momentum and sense of purpose. That magical opening is well-caught by Anthony Collins (LSO/Decca/Beulah), Rattle (CBSO/EMI) and also Maazel (VPO/Decca). As the movement expands and unfolds, I still believe that Anthony Collins is the best guide through this musical landscape. The slow movement is also quite beautiful, short notes scattered in great blocks, creating that utter sense of desolation. Here Maazel has the luscious strings of the VPO at his disposal and some magnificent Decca engineering by James Brown, it must be admitted that Collins' 1952 mono recording has some acidity in the strings. The Scherzo is typical Sibelius with scurrying strings and deft use of the percussion, here it is difficult to match Maazel with his legendary Viennese timpani at their best. Fantasy and flair are present in the beautiful Finale, a motley crux of themes assembled from the previous movements but resolved collectively to provide a movement of shattering orchestral power. For maximum excitement, I would turn to Collins who really understands Sibelius' markings but Rattle and the CBSO are also wonderful guides through the landscape. Sibelius' First is a satisfying start to a symphonic cycle and in many ways it is the most approachable of the seven in the canon.

With the Second we move a step further into truly authentic Sibelian territory. Although this is the longest of the symphonies, it still contains a certain amount of note-spinning and rhetoric that is clearly absent from its many distinguished successors. However, as a panegyric of grandeur and emotion it lies unparalleled in the canon. My selected recordings begin primarily with Anthony Collins and the LSO, Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia (Decca) and the two Karajan EMI recordings with a particular preference for the former with the Philharmonia. I also enjoy Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony and find time for Rattle with the CBSO although that recording is rather dull and unfocused. The First Movement begins almost out of nothing with a wisp of a theme gently wafting through and getting larger. As the strings are joined by scuppering woodwind and flurrying brass the music takes on an angrier and bolder nature. Here I greatly admire Davis and the luscious BSO strings although Collins' thrilling 1953 recording is more than a match too. Mystery and brooding pervade the slow movement which is quite fragmentary at times. That however does not detract from the charm of the movement. Ashkenazy's Philharmonia strings are quite difficult to beat whilst Collins and his swift tempo cannot always be the best option. We are then woken up to the shattering fortissimo sounds of the third movement. In reality all passes through in one giant sweep as third and fourth movements are linked to form one giant build-up of sound. The beauty of it all lies in the ostinatos that create such tension that one can almost feel the intensity of the music rising to fever pitch. In one of the most glorious moments in the history of music, the coda creates a sense of heroism and release from oppression, a cry for freedom one could say. Here it is difficult to fault conductors but for memorability and glory, it is hard to beat Karajan and the magnificent sonority of the Philharmonia strings in their 1960 recording. Twenty years later and the Philharmonia is still at the top of the pile for virile excitement with Ashkenazy sweeping through those bars like an irresistible force. Other versions of importance which however, have to make allowances for sonic deficiencies include the two Beecham versions (EMI/BBC SO nla, RPO/Dutton CDLX7035) and Barbirolli's thrilling 1942 NYPO account (also on Dutton) The Second was my introduction to Sibelius and along with Finlandia, it remains one of the loudest and most approachable pieces that Sibelius ever wrote.

  Third and Fourth Symphonies - Compactness to severity of form

The Third is also a fine example of Sibelian thought and symphonic compression. Whilst being a brilliant example of the composer's capabilities and gifts, it is also a remarkably simple and esay musical work to grasp. Melodies and a firm logical structure are constant strongpoints whilst an ethereally conceived slow movement reveals Siblius' penchant for all things delicate. The First Movement ( like most Sibelius works) almost begins out of nowhere, but gradually the themes begin to take shape and a coherent sonata form movement is the result. Here, I must disagree hotly with Gramophone's AA who states that Anthony Collins' thrilling LSO account is like watching a beautiful scene from the window of a high speed bus! Granted, Collins is swifter than most but the virile excitement he stirs up is nothing short of amazing. Solemnity and beauty also pervade that slow movement which is built on a simple theme but also grows with magnificence into a solemn statement of nostalgic Finnish countryside. Obviously a slower approach pays dividends and I have to admit that Ashkenazy's thoughtfully paced interpretation is obviously better than Collins fleeting glimpse. Maazel also disappoints but Davis and Rattle are simply masters here. It is a pity that Karajan was not tempted enough to record this work as I can imagine the stature he would have managed to conjure, a stature that is ever apparent in all his recordings of the symphonies. The Finale begins like a bolt out of the blue with fragmentary themes making fleeting appearances until the right type of momentum is found. Then as if in paradise, a triumphant theme takes the way, almost like a victory procession that moves with inexorable momentum towards its close. Masters in this Finale include Ashkenazy, Rattle and (a particular favourite), Davis whose utter sense of tempo make for a wonderfully vivid experience. Sibelius uses the orchestra sparingly but his sense of corporate vision is unique and already began to open new vistas and horizons on symphonic thought.


Starkness, desolation and despair, three adjectives which should suffice to sum up the gloomy and morbid soundworld that inhabits the composer's Fourth Symphony. Although the composer reverts to the more conventional four-movement structure, there is nothing normal about this score A brooding dark First Movement shows how deep the composer's intentions are. In this world of Tuonela, many conductors have triumphed and foundered. Of the former, I must single out Karajan's exceptional mid-Sixties BPO account for DG matched with Maazel's contemporaneous Decca version. Both conductors get to the bleeding heart of this troubled music without sounding sentimental or underpowered, that is some achievment. The short Second Movement offers better opportunities for showmanship with ist delightful percussion abut still the music remains fragmentary and troubled. I enjoy Beecham's blistering pace on his pioneering 1937 performance but must also yield to Sir Anthony Collin's majestic glimpse of this movement as a whole. 'Il Tempo largo' is the marking of the third movement, but this is no fresh Largo! Indeed the desolate nature of the music causes it to shift harmonics with alarming frequency, dissolving fragments of music appear only to disa[ppear without any sort of development. Once again, I turn to Karajan in Berlin and London (Philharmonia/1955) for sheer technical mastery, the corpulent visceral playing of the BPO strings is particularly alluring throughout. Mystery of the highest order pervades this movement, a composition that demonstrates the very essence of Sibelius as a composer of towering vision. We go on to the Finale with bated breath and here the mysterious clicking of the glockenspiel or tubular bells ( pre-dating Mike Oldfield!) provides for some harrowing moments of spine tingling experience. The music grows out of small blocks like in minimalist form and the conclusion leaves us unresolved and still waiting, but that in an essence is the Fourth Symphony, a work of towering greatness leaving one emotionally drained. Sir Simon Rattle's Finale is quite superbly structured, the music unfolds with natural gravitas and a sense of power in reserve. Karajan is also masterly in this movement although sometimes you feel that the music could do with a bit more push. As an all-round recommendation, Anthony Collins and his magnificent LSO top the pile, there is a married sense of greatness and urgency that makes the symphony sound so high voltage that you almost jump at the climaxes! Although I still maintain that we have not yet fully understood this symphony, these distinguished guides map out the terrain with inspired knowledge.

'God opens his door and the musicians play the Fifth Symphony'

A brash statement, perhaps uncharacteristic of Sibelius who was by nature, a quietly reserved man but I would be inclined to agree with him. Op. 82 is probably one of the greatest works of the 20th century and it has fascinated many by its unique combination of soul searching humanity and divine power, a combination that poses for symphonic grandeur on a unique scale. The compact nature of the score does not detract from expansiveness, indeed so many ideas are packed into the work that as they pass by and return forged with a difference, the listener becomes entangled in his own web of mysticism. The composer's struggle to produce the work ahve been better documented elsewhere and one could do worse than investigate Osmo Vanskaa's stunning recording of the original four-movement version of the Fifth, this is coupled with an eminently satisfactory reading of the revised version that is under discussion. As with most Sibelius symphonies, the music grows out of small germ cells which inflate and reach exalted heights of inspiration with great climaxes. The First Movement was intended as two separarte movements although you couldn't tell where they start and finish. For classical mastery and poignancy I turn to two mono recordings that rekindle the Sibelius fire like no other. The first is Karajan's magnificent 1952 mono account where the grand spacious Nordic vistas come alive in the most pompous way possible. On the other hand, Sir Anthony Collins is more circumspect, more down-to-earth in his vision but no less excitable. That superb coda is played with virile intensity by the Philharmonia and the LSO, where others such as Maazel/VPO and Davis/BSO falter. This first movement is full of pitfalls and uncharted territories but the rewards are great indeed as that headlong rush to the finish line creates a sense of unbelievable tension and exhilaration. Conversely, all is quiet and placid in the Second Movement. Here the sense of Nordic peace is communicated with a singular statement of vision, tranquility and spirituality all in one. Although I admire Karajan in the outer movements, I still think that Collins and Rattle go the heart of this music with unparalleled sentimentality. Sometimes (especially in Berlin), the orchestra under Karajan sound as if it is playing a mere interlude sandwiched between two movements. This is music of epic grandeur built on a simple theme but always rising to a high point of emotional ardour. With the Finale, Sibelius is on home ground. The opening is confidently assured, there is a firm resolve to reach the end with two contrasting themes of stultifying power meshed together. As the orchestra bounds and leaps over glaciers and fjords, the magnificent summit is in sight. This comes with a general crescendo and reprise of the Finale's theme followed by the famous six hammer blows that signify the end of one of the greatest classical symphonies of modern times. Parallels may be drawn with Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth but Sibelius' Fifth stands on its own, like a majestic eagle on a mountain. For sheer excitement and magnificence I would never be without Karajan's magnificent first account with the Philharmonia (EMI/1952). The conclusion and sense of epic grandeur is earth-shattering and the sound is superb for 1952. Other satisfying interpretations come from rattle, Collins and Ashkenazy, the latter an excellent digital bargain. Karajan's 1966 BPO recording is also excellent but for that Finale, I must plump for 1952 in London.

Calm and humanity....Sixth and Seventh symphonies.

After the earth-shaking glories of the Fifth, Sibelius relaxed in the cool spring waters of the Sixth. This is a genially laid out symphony with four classical movements that almost defy description. A soft opening on the strings sets the tone for a burgeoningly classical first movement that moves along as if propelled by some mystical force. Here, it is Anthony Collins who is closer to the heart of the matter with some superb LSO strings although Karajan's fleeting BPO performance (DG) runs him close. One cannot forget Beecham's pre-war relay although that suffers from obviously indistinct sound, nonetheless it is a scorching performance throughout. The short Scherzo is almost goblin like with ist dancing elves and mythical characters whilst the third movement is indeed deeply felt, a sort of pastoral homage to the Finnish forests. The Finale is also unhurried, uncomplex and relaxed, a true picture of a composer at peace with himself. There are many near misses for this symphony and one can count Ashkenazy, Barbirolli and Maazel among them. I still maintain that Collins is one of the greatest interpreters especially in this symphony and would place his recording as a clear first choice above all the others.

Sibelius' experiments with severity of form in symphonic thought culminated in the Seventh, a work of outstanding beauty and sleek harmony. It is almost too humane for deep thought although the single movement form is not altogether distinct with clear breaks between movements. There are moments of deep passion throughout especially when the strings play a melody that almost sings with its soulful longing for peace. There have been many who have traversed this higher ground with aplomb. Amongst the most priolific in this exclusive territory have been the justly legendary Sir Thomas Beecham with the NYPO in 1940, followed by Collins' magisterial rendering for Decca, a seemingly consistent point of reference in our article! I am also enamoured with Lorin Maazel's superbly concertrated reading with the 1967 VPO and, Herbert von Karajan's classic accounts with the Philharmonia in 1955 and the BPO of ten years later. The work can be curiously elusive but there is no denying ist greatness in the symphonic canon, it is a worthy conclusion to the numbered symphonies.

Tapiola, the 'lost' Eighth and some afterthoughts.

Many eminent Sibelians classify Tapiola as a sort of symphony but that work belongs chiefly to the forest of imagination and is thus better described as a 'symphonic fantasia' for it does not really classify as a symphonic poem neither. The dark brooding pages and ominous overtones are masterly, indeed it seemed that Sibelius could go no further after such magnificence. Other symphonic poems have been questioned as abandoned symphonies, these include chiefly 'Pohjola's Daughter' with its four-movement structure and 'Nightride and Sunrise', a marvelous evocation of the Northern latitudes. What is definite is that Sibelius achieved harmony and purity in compact symphonic form, indeed his admiration of severity was completely alien to Mahler with his all-embracing brusquely gargantuan creations. Today, the symphonies by Sibelius have an important place in the catalogue but this was not always so. Indeed it was left to the master Sibelians such as Beecham, Koussevitzky, Barbirolli and Karajan to resurrect the greatness behind these unique symphonic works. We now bask in an embarasse de riches' of recordings which should definitely serve to build a future for posterity in the Sibelian school.

Recommended recordings: (prices correct Nov 1999)

Symphony No. 1:
London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins (Beulah with Symphony 7 and Karelia) purchase £9.99

Symphony No. 2:
CBSO/Rattle (EMI) purchase  £5.99 / VPO/Maazel (Decca) purchase £4.50

Symphony No. 3:
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis (Philips Duo with symphonies 6&7) purchase  £11.50
Philharmonia Orchestra Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca double Decca with symphonies 5,6 & 7) purchase £11.50

Symphony No. 4:
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (EMI)  purchase  £8.50
BPO/Karajan (DG originals with symphonies 5.6 & 7) purchase £12.50

Symphony No 5:
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (EMI with symphony 2)  purchase £8.50
BPO/Karajan (DG) purchase £12.50

Symphony No 6:
London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins (Beulah with Symphony No 2) purchase £9.99

Symphony No. 7:
LSO/Collins (Beulah with Symphony 1 and Karelia) purchase £9.99
PO/Karajan (EMI with Symphony 6 & Tapiola) purchase £8.50
VPO Maazel (Belart with Symphony 5) purchase £4.50


Gerald Fenech

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