Something to listen to: Sibelius Symphony no. 1

Finland’s most famous mustache. And person.

I got back from vacation a week ago, but since that time it’s been an endless siege of applying for jobs, selling furniture on Craigslist, cleaning, and all the usual catch up shit that comes with being gone for two weeks. One thing that didn’t change over the course of the last month or so, through still having a job to not having one, Kansas City to Las Vegas to Tacoma and back, the terror of plane travel (which wasn’t that bad, of course) to the calm of just sitting my ass on a couch, was the fact that I listened to Sibelius Symphony no. 1 a whole lot, and I still am.

This all started with my Maurice Abravanel kick, in which I plowed through his Mahler, Tschaikovsky, and Sibelius recordings at an alarming pace. Those three cycles are full of terrific performances, but I think if I had to choose one that I liked above the rest it would be the Sibelius 1, which is full of rich colors and ridiculous energy. Since then, I’ve probably listened to the piece 40 times, and I don’t know that I’ll be stopping anytime soon.

The most common criticisms of Sibelius’ initial attempt at writing a symphony are that it sounds like a derivative version of Tschaikovsky and that it doesn’t necessarily have anything in common with his ultimate symphonic aim (that being to crush the symphonic form into the most compact possible structure, which he did like a fucking champion in the Seventh). I suppose there’s something to these criticisms, especially the latter – yes, this is pretty much a straight up four movement work on traditional models – but at the end of the day there is only one point to writing music, or doing anything else for that matter, and that’s to do it well and produce something good. No matter what it sounds like or what its structure is, Sibelius 1 is good. Really fucking good. Why?

It’s overrun with beautiful tunes and those colors that Abravanel exploits so well. I’ve liked Sibelius for as long as I care to remember, and I can probably sing the symphonies from memory at this point (don’t be a dick and try to test me on it, because I’ll choke under the pressure you put on me and then I’ll make you feel guilty about it), but I always found myself skipping over the First a bit, in large part because I had always heard the criticisms above and I was already fully on board with Sibelius’ mature style. None of that has changed exactly, but there’s nothing to know about the First besides the fact that it’s simply a hell of a way to spend 40 minutes of your time. The comparison to Tschaikovsky is apt in one very real sense: the melodies in Sibelius 1 are extraordinary, the sort of broad, sweeping thing that a) Tschaikovsky is still famous for and b) Sibelius wrote in fewer and fewer numbers in his subsequent symphonies (the Fifth being the obvious exception).

Here for your listening pleasure is a performance conducted by Pietari Inkinen, whose cycle on Naxos with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is one of the better efforts out there in my opinion. This performance is taken from a broadcast of the performances in preparation for those recordings, and it too has tremendous energy and balls, particularly in the finale. Many, many thanks to the original uploader. Enjoy.

SIBELIUS Symphony no. 1
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Pietari Inkinen, conductor
16-19 September 2009

Download Link

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7 thoughts on “Something to listen to: Sibelius Symphony no. 1

  1. Sibelius 1 is one of those pieces that I had the chance to play at a formative stage in my musical development, and ever since then it’s been lodged in my brain like one of those worms that Khan puts in Chekhov’s ear in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It was, fittingly, my introduction to the works of Sibelius which i still love to this day. I very much appreciate this download, and look forward to blasting it at neighborhood-rocking volumes in the near future.

  2. Looking forward to listening to Sibelius 1 I’m from Salt Lake and remember Maurice Abravanel leading the Utah Symphony. Now wish I had been old enough to have attended a performance under his baton. Living in Podunk Utah I’m surprised/impressed at the reputation that he has as a conductor. I am going to have to look for some of his recording to enjoy.

  3. @ Andy

    KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!!!!! Also, I hope your neighbors like it!

    @ Craig

    If you ever have the time, you should go to the McKay Music Library in the music building at the U of U and check out the Abravanel Room. They re-created his study and it has all his scores and his piano and recordings and all that good stuff. It’s really neat, and I wish I had spent more time there when I was in school. Good luck with your Abravanel journey – you can’t go wrong with the Mahler and Sibelius symphonies!

  4. Inkinen from 2009 is the recording of No 1 I go to. Love it.

  5. I’m curious if you’ve ever heard Sibelius’ early tone poem, The Wood Nymph. I just discovered it, and can’t believe that this is such an unknown work. It’s a true masterpiece, and the finale is simply one of the best I’ve ever heard anywhere.
    Supposedly it was sitting around in a music library for a number of years, until it was rediscovered. (But that may be apocryphal.)
    If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen. I can’t rave enough about it. Just, WOW.
    It’s on YouTube, Grooveshark, etc.

  6. I’m only marginally familiar with it. Clearly I need to get better acquainted. Thanks for the tip…I’m on it!

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

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