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