Live blog: The Complete Sibelius Symphonies

C.R.E.A.M. get the money. Dollar dollar bill y’all.

Excessive amounts of free time allow for excessively random things like listening to the complete symphonies of Sibelius in one night. And if you’re gonna go for it, you might as well go for it: what follows is a live blog of my personal encounter with the music of the Man from Up North. Seven symphonies. Seven conductors. Seven orchestras. Four different formats. Prepare yourself for 3400 words of stream-of-consciousness inanity. Here we go…

5:58 pm
Sibelius: Symphony no. 1
Maurice Abravanel/Utah Symphony Orchestra

There’s no better composer than Sibelius to press your loneliness button. I don’t want to say I’m already lonely, because it’s only been a couple hours since I dropped Sandy off at the airport, but I’m sure I will be at some point. This clarinet solo is so forlorn and wistful, a perfect tune at the perfect time. The criticism of the first two Sibelius symphonies is that they sound too much like Tschaikovsky, and I guess I get that a little bit, but this second theme group is one of the most characteristically SIBELIUS! episodes that I can think of, full of reedy winds and lush dynamic swells. I think I’ve identified the easiest-to-hear difference between the world’s very greatest orchestras and the orchestras that reside a level or two below them: the sound of the horns in dynamic ranges fortissimo and higher. Maybe I’m just saying that because of these horns. Let me think  about it some more.

Perfect pace on this second movement from Abravanel, rolling along so smoothly. I gotta say, the Tschaikovsky criticism can certainly be levied at this secondary theme. The theme itself sounds almost identical to a bit in The Nutcracker, and Sibelius sequences a dead horse a la Tschaikovsky, too. Sibelius never really gets mentioned when people bring up beautiful “tear-jerker” type shit, but I’m beginning to suspect that if people knew his music more, they might change their mind. The full statement of the main theme at the beginning of this movement is really something.

In my post last week about Abravanel, I mentioned the colors he gets from the band, especially the woodwinds, and this scherzo is a prime example. This movement can often sound a lot more Brucknerian than it probably should, but not here; Abravanel gets enough ice and snow from the woodwinds and strings to close down an airport. I really can’t stress enough how bad ass these balances and textures are and how ballsy the playing is – I think the trumpet at the end of the movement tore a whole through the wall.

Tremendous energy right out of the gate, and that’s without the aid of caffeine from what is surely a significant percentage of Mormons in the group! Since I’ve already established that Sibelius is underrated as a tear-jerker, I will return to that well for this finale’s gorgeous main melody. What a sublime piece of writing and an incredible dichotomy between the stasis of the bass and the soaring melody itself. I don’t have any idea who played principal trumpet for the Utah Symphony in 1977, but he’s got a laser for a sound concept, and in no way is that anything other than a compliment, especially for this music. Crass is too far, but confrontational most certainly is not. This melody in full bloom is so gorgeous, every bit the one-step-short-of-sappy that everyone loves Rachmaninov for; if you didn’t know what it was, your first instinct might actually be Rachy, I think. What an interesting ending, though probably the 6th-most interesting of the 7 symphonies. Fascinating stuff.

Sibelius: Symphony no. 2
Pierre Monteux/London Symphony

I think I’ve only listened to this recording one time, so this will certainly be interesting. Significantly less soupy intro than I’m used to, Monteux opting for the slightly choppier approach, especially in the horn articulation. This string section sounds marvelous, together on all the flourishy string runs and with a nice full tone. And it sounds like the engineers recognized this and mixed them up by 10% so you, the listener, would be sure to enjoy it too. Angry horns! Is Monteux known as any kind of reputable Sibelius conductor? I’ve never associated him with Sibelius much, but he’s really got them getting after it. It’s a little too polished sound-wise, perhaps, but they’re playing like they’re being chased. Christ Almighty, if Pierre Monteux had tusks…sorry, I lost focus there.

Here’s that lonely bug again: pizzicato low strings and octave bassoons? Come on, Jean! I might as well reach for the Ambien and the porn now! Angry horns! Here’s our first glimpse at Sibelius’ second attempt to jerk tears from us in a slow movement. That will probably be awesome if it comes back in full resplendence (spoiler alert: it does). This trumpet solo sounds incredibly uneasy, not in a “mysterious and haunting” way, but more of a “wait, are we playing Sibelius 2?” way. The principal trumpet is early on his crescendi every single time, too – I’ll bet his wife gets frustrated with that, too. Is it Howard Snell? It must be, right? We’re in position for that melody now…it’s in range…and here we go! WOODWIND TRILLS! SYRUPY STRINGS! WHERE ARE THE BRASS AT THE END OF IT?! I’ve never understood this spot with the rushing strings and the furious woodwind trill. What the hell is it there for? Whatever, this ending is awesome.

This is a fun scherzo. It sounds like something Beethoven would have written had he lived in Finland and been 150 years old. You know, in the right hands there is nothing more beautiful than an oboe. These are not those hands. This guy’s sound makes me want to grab stale bread and feed it. Has an orchestra ever come out of that “trio” section properly? That’s an entertaining 4-bar clusterfuck. Angry horns! That’s cute, the oboe sound is diving for food! I think it’s a mallard! Angry horns!

This string section, on the other hand, sounds mighty. Full of passion and life, and probably some kind of brown ale. See, these woodwind balances (over the repeated rising-and-falling low strings) don’t seem carefully crafted at all. The Abravanel recording grabs you by the throat there…with soft woodwind playing. THAT’S how you create texture. This was just kind of there. Unrelated story: this finale is the first thing I remember playing in an orchestra, while in high school. I don’t remember if it was exactly first or not – there’s a Procession of the Sardar in there somewhere – but it was formative. Angry horns! Seriously, the rest of this band should have been like that scene in When Harry Met Sally and had some of what she, and by she I mean the strings and horns, is having. Even in spite of the “meh” performance itself, this has to be one of the best buildups to the end of a piece there is. It just keeps coming and coming like a ghost from the woods. What an awesome ending. Not really as played here, but in general. I might need to cleanse myself of this one later, but for now, we’re moving on!

Sibelius: Symphony no. 3
Kiril Kondrashin/Moscow Philharmonic

This is my favorite of the Sibelius symphonies. What a strange departure from what came before it, but it’s also unquestionably Sibelius, totally unique and fundamentally interesting. Kondrashin is one of my favorite conductors, as anyone reading this likely already knows. He’s more regarded for Mahler and Shostakovich, but I think he has a pretty good conception of what it takes for a successful Sibelius performance, too. Perhaps this hyper-aggressive tempo is an example of that: I don’t know that I have another performance that moves at this clip, but it really works well, making the music lighter than what I’m used to hearing. God, this band and conductor are completely in sync with one another. It sounds like it’s on the verge of crashing at any moment, but shit it’s exciting! I love this chorale so much. It sounds like something from Lord of the Rings. And yet I hate Lord of the Rings. Hey look, it’s an Amen cadence! Great performance of that movement. Wow.

This movement always seems to suffer in people’s minds because they compare it to the second movement of the more popular Fifth, but I find it to be perhaps the sweetest music Sibelius ever wrote. It flows along so nicely, like a gondola ride without the questionable singing. Ah the cello duet…so juicy. This is another quick tempo, impressively handled by the pizzicato strings. I wonder if Kondrashin had somewhere he had to be after the gig that night. It actually works well, though. I wonder if everybody has the balls to take these tempi and choose not to, but it’s pretty fucking awesome and they should. These brief little woodwind runs sound totally insane. These cool little codas that could be in fantasy movies are officially a trend!

This is the first tempo that I would describe as reasonably normal. Still pretty exciting because the playing sounds like they’re dodging gunfire. This is Sibelius’ first attempt at the sort of symphonic synthesis that he would ultimately perfect in the Seventh, and I gotta say, for a first try, it’s not bad. This final theme comes in assertively, but it fits pretty nicely with the fading scherzo material. Really, this entire final section could probably work in some Hobbit shit, too. It bothers me that I think this, because as I said, those movies are terribly boring, but perhaps I’d like them more if the score was Sibelius 3. I mentioned during the Second that the buildup to the end of that piece was one of the best, but it might be topped here, especially since this one involves manic horn trills. Lots of string energy here, great counterpoint, and…a totally mellow last chord. Oh shit!

7:52pm – 9:16pm
Dinner Break: Smokin’ Guns BBQ

Meh in virtually every way imaginable.

Sibelius: Symphony no. 4
Paavo Berglund/Helsinki Philharmonic

This intro is much sadder than I’m used to. It usually sounds a tad bit furious and menacing, but this one sounds morose and resigned to the fact that this is going to be a long slog. This piece is really unusual, and I feel like it should be more popular than it is among Sibelius’ works. There’s absolutely nothing not to like about this first movement, so much so that I went double negative on it. It’s heartbreaking, vengeful, tender, pissed off, everything, secretly a much better breakup song than some bullshit by The Cranberries. Wow, these strings sound downright Arctic, but it’s a pretty amazing effect, especially with how clear the celli/basses sound. I love these thirds in the strings, rising and falling and rising. Creepy ending, though. Good breakup song, amirite?!

After the frenzied scherzi from the first three symphonies (the one is the beginning of the finale in the Third, I guess), this is straight up minuet-ish. I think back to that terrifying oboe sound from the performance of the Second, and then I hear this oboe and I can’t even believe that they’re playing the same musical instrument. There’s some really aggressive flute playing in here that sounds like someone’s punching Zamfir in his face while he’s playing. Really woody sound. I’m going to think about punching Zamfir in the face now.

This third movement was played at Sibelius’ funeral, which has to mean something. Pseudo-Brucknerian horn chorale certainly sounds funereal. The notion of Sibelius as the ultimate representation of everything Finland is a little silly, but this music is exactly what I imagine Finland looks like in person: stark, distant, beautiful, cold, and most of all mysterious. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for as long as I care to remember. These strings are a miracle. I don’t know that a section could sound more idiomatic than this, not that I have any real idea what idiom the composer had in mind. It just sounds, well, right. This climax is intense, as are the emotionally disconnected woodwinds following them.

There are some genuinely crazy sounds coming from my speakers. Abravanel’s colors and shapes are a little more musically convincing to me, but it’s hard not to embrace the all-Finnish situation presented here. That glockenspiel sounds downright “serial-killer clown” creepy. This entire finale has a strange momentum to it; it feels stuck in place in some ways because of all the disjointed little ditties passed around the winds, and yet the strings are bustling along for extended stretches like we know they ought to. I think maybe that’s why the ending is so confounding. All these disparate things going in kind of lead me to believe that some sort of cosmic synergy is going to take place and the entire world is going to be altered through the fusion of all these bits and pieces. And then it’s almost like Sibelius says, “I can’t do this. It’s too easy. Fuck it.” Always leave ’em wanting more, man.

Sibelius: Symphony no. 5
Leonard Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic

My God that’s a lot of white dudes. I don’t think the Vienna Philharmonic sounds like this anymore. These recordings from the ’80’s with Bernstein make them seem untouchable, and yet every time I’ve heard them in the last 5 years or so, they sound like shit. And it’s funny, because there isn’t anything about this sound that screams “Sibelius!” at me like the Helsinki Philharmonic just did,  but it just sounds so God damn great that you stop caring about any particular sound model and marvel at just how awesome this is and they are. Their performance of Shostakovich 6 and 9 is the same way: obviously I’ll take Mravinsky or Kondrashin, but fuck do they play the absolute piss out of that stuff. Same deal here – it could be “rougher” or “frostier” or “whatever,” but it’s just refined to a 100% pure crystalline substance that I’d love to snort if that were made available as an option. Is it possible to look more retarded than Bernstein? He looks like he has no idea what he’s doing, except for the part about completely fucking owning this performance. Lenny physically conducts like someone who won a raffle. That horn player looks 10. Jesus. This is the only other piece I can think that can rival Mahler 8 for “oh shit, did we blow our load too quickly on the awesome ending?!” scale of epic first movements.

I get why they always compare this movement and the corresponding one from the Third, which I probably mentioned somewhere in this catastrophe of a post. They’re clearly cut from the same cloth. You know, there’s no chicks in this band, but a lot of these dudes have pretty feminine hands and soft facial features. I’m going to pretend that it was like prison and some of the musicians were the “bitches,” this principal bassoon most definitely fitting the profile. You gotta do what you gotta do…don’t judge. That is a wall of brass, both aurally and visually, that sounds like something from the Battle of Jericho. Fuck yo wall! The last minute or so of this movement is awesome, totally Brahmsian in its disintegration.

And away they go! I have a stupid confession to make: I love running to this “swan” theme bit, especially near the end of a run when I’m tired as hell, because it makes me feel like I’m flying. Fuck yeah, basses! This theme could totally end poverty and war if we just play it over and over again. Somebody tell Africa and the Middle East that we’ve found the cure! This transition into the reprise of the “swan” theme is so great. It kinda appears as if from nowhere, and then a couple little dips and we’re back into the music that will let us fly and solve all problems. I mean, it doesn’t get better than this. It’s like waves crashing down on you, only the waves are everything that’s great about human existence. These exaggerated final six chords are kinda silly, though. Dammit, Lenny.

Sibelius: Symphony no. 6
Alexander Gibson/Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Has anyone ever heard this piece before? This is the hidden gem to end all hidden gems, safely ensconced between the world-famous Fifth and Seventh. It’s a little bit in the same universe as the Third, lighter and more sprightly, never really stopping with the nervous energy of the bouncing strings. This sounds like what Sibelius would have written had be been tasked with scoring the opening credits to Home Alone: a lively holiday vibe with just a hint of unease. Damn these Scotsmen play with balls.

This second movement is an odd one, never really settling into anything comfortable, not unlike the finale of the Fourth, but even with that refusal to settle down, this music is still light and sweet. I enjoy Gibson and the Royal Scottish approach to Sibelius a lot, which I’m on record for I’m sure. It’s something of a happy medium between the brazen, raw sound of the Helsinki Philharmonic in the Fourth  and the Vienna Philharmonic in the Fifth. Ballsy, but still plenty icy.

I’ll continue with that thought even though the scherzo has started. Gibson’s Sibelius is appealing, in my opinion, because he brings that sound concept like Berglund and applies it to an orchestra that plays with a rich, full, aggressive approach. Because of his musical approach, the orchestra ends up sounding icier (I know I keep using that word, but it’s what I think of when I think of Sibelius) than they actually are. Like in that micro-3rd movement: lush brass, yes, but not without a sharp edge.

This is perhaps Sibelius’ best woodwind writing, and that’s saying something considering he’s the greatest composer for woodwinds that ever lived. So free and easy – masterfully written. As I said above, this entire piece is underrated, but I would think this finale in particular would sufficiently pique the interest of listeners enough to make the Sixth more mainstream. It’s such a unique sound, sort of Mendelssohn on Grey Goose and steroids, but with the great vengeance and furious anger of Sibelius’ brass writing on top of it, and yes, I just compared Sibelius’ brass writing to the great Jules Winfield (TELL THAT BITCH TO BE COOL! SAY, “BITCH BE COOL!”). Note to all music directors out there reading this, which is probably somewhere between zero and zero: the Sixth is just hanging out over here, but it’s ready to get all up in your shit whenever you’re ready.

Sibelius: Symphony no. 7
Thomas Beecham/Royal Philharmonic

We’ve come to the Seventh, and the LP cover has a picture of Beecham chatting with Sibelius, so you know it’ll be legit. The pacing on this opening section is pretty slow, but the buildup to the first appearance of the trombone motif is nice. The ‘bones don’t sound especially confident, but in some ways that’s OK, because this piece is all about forming perfection out of chaos anyway. It would be awesome if they were sandbagging it and waiting for the third and final appearance to play with polish and swagger. This transition into the “scherzo” is so impressively written, pushing and pulling and finally sucking you in. Beecham really lays in the weeds with the tempo in the initial stages of this scherzodic (did I invent this word?) episode, but when they finally go, man they go. Trombones, round 2. Certainly more assertive this time, backed by some incredibly upset-sounding strings. This is every bit as cosmic as Bruckner or Mahler, the sound of the universe ringing. Scherzodic episode 2 has much more bounce than episode 1, and the tempo is spot on perfect for a smooth and jaunty time. Beecham doesn’t generate a lot of great colors though, which is disappointing; everything seems homogenized. And so it begins: the construction, the deconstruction, and the reconstruction, one of the great moments in not just music but life. Confident trombones, check. This moment when all the chaos coalesces into a unison note is incredible, maybe the coolest thing anyone ever wrote at any point. But that’s not even enough, we’ve got this gorgeous string chorale to keep us warm until we rebuild the universe in the winds. Seriously, this shit is amazing. What a finish to a symphonic cycle. It’d be cool to hear the fabled Eighth Symphony…but we don’t need it. The Seventh said all that needs to be said.

Pause and reflect


11 thoughts on “Live blog: The Complete Sibelius Symphonies

  1. Great post, one of your best.

    Of course, the Sibelius symphonies are a pretty modest all-in-one-go listening project. You should try listening to the entire Ring in a day- I heard of some crazy-ass musicians who did it a few years ago…

  2. This is awesome. Thank you for saying out loud what I’ve always thought about Bernstein’s conducting. He DID win a raffle. We should totally duo-blog Nielsen sometime. I’ll bring the BBQ. And bourbon.

  3. Entertaining post, as usual. I have been an enormous fan of Sibelius ever since reading (former) Washington Post critic Tim Page’s excellent piece on Sibelius (The Resurrection of Sibelius, availble on Google). He singles out Monteux’s Sibelius symphony #2 as his favorite. Sounds like you had an entirely different take on it. I’ll look out for the Gibson (Chandos) recording someday to see which one I prefer.

  4. @ Ken

    Still one of the best days of my life, which may sound weird to some. I’ve never forgotten how bad ass that guy playing Loge was in Rheingold. That was a blast. We need to do that again every 10 years.

    @ Dave

    I’m completely entertained by watching Bernstein at this point. He looks absolutely ridiculous. And yet in spite of it, that performance of 5 is fucking epic. I’ve really turned around on Lenny in the last few years.

    @ Jesse

    I appreciate the kind words. I feel like there’s a pretty easy argument to be made that Tim Page is better than me at music writing, so far be it from me to question that Monteux recording. As far as recordings of the Second I dig, I’d go for Gibson (as you mentioned), Abravanel, and if you want to be entertained by mountain-crushing brass, the Colin Davis/London Symphony on RCA.

  5. Totally agree that Sibelius is under-rated as a tear jerker. Those who tear become Sibelius worshippers!

    You have a very “lively” way of describing Sibelius. Not the way I would do it, but am in complete agreement with you regarding the beauty of the 3rd’s second movement and the hidden rapturous beauty of the 6th, among other things! But I really love the way you describe the ending of the 7th – coalescing …. and rebuilding the universe with winds! Wonderful!

  6. I’ve recently become obsessed with Sibelius and found your blog. I can appreciate your running commentary, sounds like a more informed version f the monologue in my brain alone at home with a bottle of wine and my vinyl of the Helsinki orch doing the 4th and 7th.

    Also, I work a block away from Smokin’ Guns, and “meh” is the perfect review; I can never understand why there is a line around the block at that place.

  7. Pingback: The complete symphonies of Carl Nielsen: a Retro Diary | Everything But The Music

  8. You should really consider doing a live-blog of the Shostakovich symphonies.

  9. Flippin’ great post mate! Truly brilliant. And you know ‘yer Sibelius, or at least the symphonies. Get The Essential Sibelius box on BIS label – it’ll blow yer lid off and change your life forever.

    Also, check out the band cardiacs on YT and iTunes. All of their albums are available there. Tim Smith is a British musical genius who happened to write gorgeously complex compositions in a nouveau post-punk prog style as a starting point. But he drifts off into icy Sibelius-like dreamscapes and will turn that on a dime into a Zappa-esque melodic frenzy where these monsterous unison sections just rip your head off. Check out the album “Sing to God” on YT, or better yet buy it on itunes. But it’s coming out on CD again soon, so you will want to buy this sucker up in a fleeting glimpse.

    Also, check out “Hope Day (live from the Garage Concerts Vol. I and II) on YT. No overdubs, just a band playing live. Insane in every great way.

  10. Thank you for posting this — highly entertaining, but also conveying and sharing a love for Sibelius. I really enjoyed reading this, so thanks again for taking the time to post it. Sincerely, – Jim

  11. Pingback: Something cool you might have missed: “Praga” by Josef Suk | Everything But The Music

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