Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Sibelius at home IV: portraits

In addition to John Munsterhjelm's 1909 bronze of the composer - into which Sibelius inserted a lucky horseshoe - two of the most important portraits are to be found at Ainola. One faces you on the other side of the window to the bust as you enter the drawing room.

This is Albert Edelfeldt's study, made in 1904 as a preparatory sketch for his three-part mural in the University of Helsinki's main auditorium. I had a feeling I might get to see it on my much-anticipated visit to hear the Helsinki Philharmonic that evening. The deplorable situation with the main Finlandia Concert Hall means that either of the city's two main orchestras can be ousted if a more lucrative conference booking so decrees, and that's what happened on Thursday evening - with the result that, owing to the subscription sales outstripping the seating facilities at the university, I was told a ticket at the smaller venue would be very hard to come by. And this for a programme of Walton and Hindemith you'd be lucky to get half an audience for in London.

Anyway, I did get in, and as it turned out there were plenty of empty seats owing to the subscribers' prerogative of turning up or not (the still very large audience, though, proved a healthy mix, attentive and enthusiastic). I had the huge pleasure of top Finnish designer (and very modest gentleman) Markku Piri's company, and he took me down from our balcony seats to look at the main hall in the interval. I think that, for all his knowledge, he was rather surprised to find that Sibelius did indeed feature in the mural. There he is in the procession of figures in 17th century dress leading the Turku University inauguration, just behind Governor Per Brahe.

Forgive the pointillist overlay, but I couldn't find any better image than my own on the web. Here's a more professional shot of the handsome neoclassical hall.

It's a rather small venue for a large symphony orchestra, and there was nowhere for the Helsinki Phil players to hide from the audience. Not that they needed to: John Storgards did a splendid job with a brilliant programme, three-quarters of which I've never heard in a UK concert. First half started with Walton's Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, followed by the Hindemith Cello Concerto, its cheeky march-finale anticipating the pleasures of the more familiar Weber Metamorphoses. Spot-on Torlef Thedeen formed a true concerto partnership with this lively team (characterful principal clarinet, later first flautist and oboist, had a very individual sound). After the interval, the orchestration of Walton's Hindemith Variations, its theme derived from the slow movement of the Concerto, was pure sleek pleasure, an altogether trickier fugue to cap it all followed by a decadent slow fade. I told Markku he was in for a treat with the Turandot March of the Hindemith Variations; sure enough, he smiled and even laughed at the jazzy bit. Lots to think about, he said at the end, and so there was.

One notorious artistic glimpse of Sibelius at large in Helsinki I didn't get to see: while I've already noted the surprise of Gallen-Kallela's triptych, his celebrated take on a drinking 'symposium' at the happening Kamp Hotel was, we were told by the hotel's reception, locked in a safe. Yet there seems to be a version at the Gosta Serlachius Foundation.

No prizes for guessing why the depiction of Sibelius on the right gave him a bad name, and almost led the Jarvenpaa worthies to refuse him the land at Ainola (the other reprobates, left to right, are the artist, Merikanto and Kajanus). Another drinking bout may be the reason why Aino looks so weary in this marvellous portrait by her brother Eero Jarnefelt, hanging to the left of the Ainola dining-room entrance.

Only someone close, I reckon, could have caught that look - it reminded me of something similar in Thomas Eakins's study of his embittered wife. But I don't think Aino was embittered long-term. She looks rather jolly in some later photographs; Sibelius rarely, but there is just one equivalent to 'Garbo laughs', which seems like a good way to end this penultimate instalment about the house.


John said...

Never seen that photo of Sibelius smiling (bit scary) - thanks.

Will said...

I find Aino's look deeply inquisitive and perhaps a bit skeptical. It's a refreshing departure from the usual formal portrait; it's almost like a snapshot that unexpectedly captures a deeply revealing transient expression.

David said...

Which is why I mentioned the portrait of Susan Macdowell Eakins: do you know it? It was painted in 1900, just after Eakins had been accused of sexual misconduct towards his sister's daughter, who had committed suicide.

Ainola's public theory about Aino in the portrait made by her brother is that she's tired from just having given birth. But knowing how Jean wore her out with his drinking and debauchery, the alternative does seem equally possible.