Inspired by a Twitter live blog involving Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony and a string of Esa-Pekka Salonen insults from two of the raddest “follows” a person could have, @loganvw and @hamtron5000, hidden deep within this message is a superb performance of the the Fourth to counterbalance whatever monstrosity they heard last night. Presumably a brief diatribe on the work in question is in order, and as a tribute to my overwhelming laziness I’m simply going to copy and paste my thoughts on Sibelius 4 from my moderately interesting countdown of the 10 best Symphonies no. 4.
The first decade of the 20th century was a period of hopelessness and resignation, if we are to look at history through binoculars in A minor. Two of the mightiest composers of the era tackled symphonies in the key, and two of the most profoundly discouraging and powerfully human symphonies emerged. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is one of the most celebrated compositions of all-time, and rightly so. It is a work of utter darkness, a giant monument to the phrase “life is not fair.” And if you thought IT was dark…
For my money, there is no music ever composed that can capture the isolation and despair of life better than Sibelius’ Fourth. Composed on the heels of the removal of a tumor from his throat, Sibelius became consumed by the work for the better part of a year, and the result was a work that to this day generates a lot of love-it-or-hate-it reactions. The first movement is intense…just listen to the first note, an absolutely furious C in the low strings and bassoons that sounds like one of those screams you let out while punching the steering wheel during rush hour. There are some beautiful episodes to be found, especially in the brass chorale and the yearning string response, but overwhelmingly this is musical Oxycodone. The scherzo takes a dramatic turn from bubbly to menacing, and the Largo was requested by Sibelius himself for performance at his funeral.
The finale is where the emotional state of the work really materializes. It has a similar trajectory as the scherzo, beginning with happiness (how can I be sad when there’s glockenspiel?!). But this time we don’t end up menacing. We end up resigned. And at least to my ears, it isn’t a peaceful or comfortable resignation like the kind you find in Mahler’s late works; it is a cynical, almost nihilistic resignation that no matter what you do, it’s never going to matter. I mean, the symphony ends mezzo-forte…after all we’ve been through musically, it just peters out and ends mezzo-forte! If that isn’t the most starkly naked “fuck it, dude, let’s go bowling” in music history, I just don’t know what is. For those of us who grow increasingly pessimistic about the world around us, this symphony is not so much our rallying cry as our consolation that we’ve seen it all before.
This performance comes from a surprising source, at least surprising to me. I don’t generally associate Michael Tilson Thomas with Sibelius, even though I think MTT is perhaps the best conductor whose heart is currently beating. Kudos to him and his gang for playing the hell out of a challenging work and doing it with style and substance.