Monday 31 October 2011

Sibelius's 'Virgin' Symphony?

We’re talking not any of those Kalevala maidens from Luonnotar to Aino, depicted above evading old man Väinämöinen in an early triptych by Sibelius’s friend and contemporary Akseli Gallen-Kallela, but the BVM, no less.

The news was broken to me by that nice BBC man Mark Lowther, bounding up enthusiastically at the interval of Friday night’s concert (which I was reviewing for The Arts Desk, but had been determined to catch under any circumstances). Had I heard what conductor Sakari Oramo had to say about new research on the Sibelius Third Symphony, in which he was about to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra? I hadn’t, but Mark gave me the gist and I caught Oramo succinctly mentioning it again in the broadcast between Luonnotar and the symphony.

In short, says Oramo, ‘this music or material of it was originally part of an oratorio project about the Virgin Mary, and you can I think relate to a lot of this music thinking it has a religious – albeit it is a pagan-religious or folk-religious – background, and I think this explains a lot of the chorale textures, it explains the nature of the final hymn.’

Indeed – hurrah for ongoing Finnish scholarship, and how frustrating that unless we master that impossible language, the rest of us are shut out from the more interesting developments until someone like Oramo draws our attention to it. Anyway, that’s enough to justify inclusion of a couple of images from the Barbara altarpiece by the north German Master Francke, which resided in the church in Kalanti from about 1410 to 1883 and is now in Helsinki’s National Museum of Finland.

Not that the news changes the essential character of the symphony, which has the feeling of a journey like the earlier ones in the Lemminkäinen Suite and En Saga. But how difficult to put one’s finger on what makes this music strike so profoundly, apart from its deep-wired structural surprises (what an amazing solution to let the chorale out of the bag in the finale when he does). I found myself in tears minutes into the second movement, which for swathes does little more than oscillate around an intermezzo-like, runic melody. Järvi's Gothenburg performance is one of the few to capture the same sort of inscaped magic.

I’d been in a gloomy mood all week, mostly triggered by ongoing dental surgery, and this lifted me completely as Chailly’s Beethoven on Wednesday couldn’t.

Same goes for Luonnotar, the Finnish creation myth as adapted from the Kalevala, and illustrated above and below by Gallen-Kallela. The depicted stanzas deal with Luonnotar/Ilmatar’s floating on the water and her raising of a knee for a teal to nest on.

From the teal’s egg are fashioned the solid earth, the lofty arch of heaven, the sun (its yolk), the moon (its white) and the stars (its speckled shell). I’ve written enough already in the Arts Desk piece about the BBCSO/Oramo partnership with the wonderful Mrs. O., Anu Komsi, who’s previously dazzled us with twin Piia in Salonen’s Wing on Wing. There’s communication for you. Mattila amid wavescapes will do here (be patient with the opening soundtrack, which fades before the music begins), but Friday night's performance was even more extraordinary, and the communication cried out to be seen as well as heard.

Komsi WAS the Virgin of the Air cast plaintively upon the waters, and earlier she even convinced me that there might be more to Saariaho than what so briefly tickles the ear: here was substance as well as texture. But of course it’s Sibelius who still sounds freshest and continues to give perhaps the greatest spiritual sustenance of any composer I know. I still count those four hours spent last March at his home of Ainola (pictured again below - this of course is where he composed the Third Symphony), prompting four entries starting with this one, as among the most impression-filled of my life. And Sibelius's unflagging genius - the miniatures are as individual as the compressed epics - has come to feel like the strongest of all musical companions through life.


Susan Scheid said...

Condolences on your dental problems, what a bore!

Did you know that Bard’s Summerscape this year featured Sibelius? We were sadly only able to attend one performance, though it was quite interesting: “From the Nordic Folk,” including works by Sibelius (Six Finnish Folksongs), Grieg, Grainger, Bartók, Szymanowski, Kuula, and Ravel, so a real potpourri.

I was particularly interested in your statement that Sibelius “continues to give perhaps the greatest spiritual sustenance of any composer I know.” I tend to think of him as a composer whose music I know, when, in fact, I’ve heard only a handful of pieces, at best. Something else I look forward to correcting!

David said...

Ta - I thought this was an interesting one, but if the grazers find it so, they're not shouting!

Leon Botstein always programmes interestingly at Bard - what a polymath! Coincidentally I'll be only-connecting in Glasgow tomorrow, when I have to talk about 'the year 1911' - Sibelius 4, Rosenkav, Bluebeard's Castle, Webern, Elgar, Debussy...

Last night, since our two musicians had to pull out from my BBCSO class, we revisited Luonnotar. What an extraordinary piece, and what an unsurpassable performance from Anu Komsi. I also have Mattila and (award winning) Isokoski, and they don't put it across with an ounce of her communication. Maybe you can still get the concert on the iPlayer (until Friday)? Or maybe it doesn't work in the States. Possibly the most impressive I've heard this year.

Susan Scheid said...

Thank you so much for the alert on the BBC3 broadcast. I'll admit to skipping straight to Luonnotar, which I've now listened to 3 times with pleasure, and I've got a taste of the heavenly second movement of Symphony No. 3, though I must come back to hear the whole, as the hour grows late here. Hmmm, not the first gorgeous Andante or Adagio (read: Weinberg) about which you've tipped me off. Not to mention the ArtsDesk piece and the four Sibelius at home pieces--all of which I've now perused! A treasure trove of Sibelius goods, and a lovely way to end the evening. (Only glad I've decamped to our city digs and was able to find all this, as the power is still out at home.)

David said...

Sue, you are almost too receptive to be real - thank you. And you give as good as you take: love the elegant layout of your superb photos over on Prufrock's Dilemma (as I've said there; but I do urge folk to take a look, especially at the Hudson avian visitors through the seasons).

Susan Scheid said...

OK, now, I promise I won't keep this up as it will get to be too, too much, but I must share these two things: our power came on just tonight--we've been without for almost a week--and I really think your Sibelius feast came as much-needed balm just as I was beginning to dread going back to a power-less house.

At the same time, almost, a wonderful writer whom I also follow (The Task at Hand in my sidebar) wrote a lyrical post about using the extra hour conferred by the clocks falling back. I wrote to her about my precious hour with Sibelius, and this is what she wrote back: "It wasn’t difficult – combining Sibelius, Tardis and BBC in the search box brought up the David Nice review, which really was lovely. From there, I went on to “Finlandia”, which I haven’t listened to in ages. It was one of the first pieces of classical music I was introduced to, and I enjoyed listening again."

All proving your point about "spiritual sustenance." To Sibelius, then: here, there, everywhere!

David said...

Well, I shouldn't be snobbish and say Finlandia is to Sibelius what Pomp and Circumstance is to Elgar (ie excellent and up to a point characteristic, but 'public music'). Hope it will lead to the rich and the rare. My absolute favourite among the symphonies, FWIW, is the pure-spring-water Sixth.

BTW, you're right about 'The Task at Hand' - another beautifully presented blog.

Geo. said...

I heard this BBC SO concert via iPlayer, and enjoyed it very much, with maybe the slight reservation that the middle movement of Sibelius 3 trod perhaps just a fraction too slowly. But never mind, since I'm a big Sibelius fan, and this is one of the two JS symphonies I haven't yet heard live.

At the risk of pointless speculation (and you probably wouldn't be able to answer the question directly anyway), on the basis of this appearance, any chance that Sakari Oramo may be in the running to succeed Jiri B. at the BBC SO? Of course, a decision may already have been made, rendering the hypothetical question moot.

David said...

Interesting: the delivery of the Third's middle movement was what made it unique for me. Never thought of it in that profound way before.

The question you raise had also occurred to me. I can speculate too, can't I, even though I tend to get my knuckles rapped. Dausgaard was one I'd be very happy with, Oramo is another...not sure how this would fit with his other orchestral posts.