any set of performances deserved to be called legends, it is these.
Not only were they the highlights of Lorin Maazel's Decca Sibelius
cycle of the late 1960s, but it was also the first and, so far as
I know, the only time the Vienna Philharmonic ever recorded the
Sibelius Fourth Symphony. According to Guy Richards' biography
of the composer ,
when Paul Weingartner tried to conduct the work in Vienna in 1912,
the Philharmonic members simply refused to play it. To go from adamant
refusal to recording the work for a young but dedicated conductor
was a huge step, especially for as conservative an orchestra as
course, this fact would mean very little if the performance were
lackadaisical or uncommitted. That is not the case here. The playing
here is sharp and polished, fully focused on the music at hand.
As for the interpretation, while Herbert von Karajan's three recordings
of this work are darkly brooding, and Osmo Vänskä's interpretation
one of rare eloquence, Maazel's view is one of throat-gripping drama
and intensity. This performance grabs you from the opening bars
and does not let go until the end. It is definitely not to be missed.
the case of this symphony's history, the metaphor for Maazel's performance
is especially apt. In 1908, Sibelius underwent a series of 13 operations
in Berlin to remove a growth in his throat. Though this growth was
found not to be cancerous, there was no guarantee that cancer would
not manifest. As a result of this and severe indebtedness partly
due to medical expenses, Sibelius lived in constant tension and
fear of imminent death for several years. Despite all this, there
was one positive effect: The severity of Sibelius's illness accelerated
his musical evolution, a process already begun with his Third Symphony.
September 1909, Sibelius's neighbor and brother-in-law, the painter
Eero Järnefelt, invited him to travel with him to Koli, a remote
mountain area in North Karelia. The outing allowed Sibelius an opportunity
to reflect on his life and work, and that plus the icy, rugged terrain
not only inspired him to compositional action but also profoundly
influenced the nature of the new symphony itself. Even with this
inspiration, however, it took him more than two years to complete
the score - far longer than any of his earlier three symphonies.
at times unsettling and at others achingly beautiful, with its musical
materials rigorously based on the tritone - traditionally the diabolus
of music - Sibelius seemed to pour all his anxieties and dark thoughts
directly into this work while graphically capturing the frozen,
desolate winter landscape of Koli. The Fifth
Symphony may be more popular due to its sunnier, more Olympian
nature, but the Fourth is where Sibelius truly pushed the envelope
of tonality, even while calling the work "a reaction against
modern music." In that sense, the Fourth is Sibelius's most
adventurous and uncompromising tour de force.
in the bleakness, however, there are gleams of light and moments
of pure splendor, all of which Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic
capture as well as the work's shadows. While not slighting the undertone
of potential menace in the scherzo, they allow the movement's general
radiance to shine through the clouds. Maazel builds the final allegro
with a sure hand and an excellent feel for he work's rhythms; and
while the despair of the preceding movements returns in the coda,
stomping out the joy of the rest of the movement and, in effect,
snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the final cadence is
not played without a glimmer of hope.
ensemble playing is not just outstanding, but incredibly sensitive
to detail. When the violins begin their passagework at 3:37 in the
slow movement, there is an added delicacy that perfectly captures
both the tone of melancholy and the fragility of thin ice over a
pond, ready to crack with the least amount of weight at any time;
and they maintain this delicacy even as they lean into the music
beginning at 7:10. The solo work is just as impeccable, including
some incredibly expressive cello work in the opening movement and
an excellent flute solo at the start of the slow movement.
the time Sibelius wrote the Seventh Symphony,
he had refined his symphonic style and condensed his use of structure
to the barest of elements. Rather than limiting him, this restriction
freed his sense of fantasy, and urged him to incredible feats of
musical imagination and resourcefulness. Nevertheless, he struggled
with the Seventh, telescoping what was originally planned as a three-movement
work into one continuous movement of power, majesty and yearning.
It seems hard to believe that he even struggled with whether or
not to even call it a symphony (at the premiere performance in Stockholm
in 1924, it was labeled a "symphonic fantasy), because the
music is so resolute in intent and granitic in its resources that
it is impossible to think of the work as anything else.
favorite version of this work has long been Leonard Bernstein's
with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 415305), one of the best of his
late recordings that has inexplicably gone out of print. Bernstein
delineated the music beautifully in a magisterial and unmannered
performance that gave full rein to Sibelius's extraordinary feats
of imagination and would have done his mentor Serge Koussevitsky
(an early champion of Sibelius and especially of this symphony)
not as commanding as Bernstein nor as overwhelming as in his own
performance of the Fourth Symphony, Maazel leads a fleet and sensitive
account of the Seventh that really stands out. Though the
brass is not as well captured as in Bernstein's recording, the string
work is exceptionally nuanced and fluid, and Maazel (right) conveys
an excellent sense of flow and movement. He is also more committed
than Vänskä ,
who seems strangely washed out after his exceptional Sixth Symphony.
If in the long run I find the Seventh's final moments more cathartic
and earth-shattering in Bernstein's hands, Maazel brings the same
multi-faceted aspect that he lent to the coda of the Fourth. There
is twilight here, but also hope for another day.
Tapiola, on the other hand,
is simply incredible, and kudos to Decca to unearthing this performance
from their vault. If the Seventh Symphony evokes a great range of
sunlit mountains, Tapiola plunges us into the depths of a
thick, multi-shadowed forest. There is a dark, elemental power to
this score that can be unsettling, as though the elements themselves
have been contained in it and violently struggle to break free.
released on LP with the Fourth Symphony, Maazel's Tapiola
shares the Fourth's extreme concentration, adding a more pronounced
passion and a fierce wildness that is just barely kept in check.
The Vienna Philharmonic again outdoes itself, combining conviction,
delicacy, power and a dangerously dark beauty in a performance will
not only keep you listening but will give you goosebumps. It is
recordings such as this one that make one wish Sibelius had not
given in to self-doubt and allowed his Eighth Symphony to see the
light of day, as it definitely shows the composer at his best.
Rickards, Guy., Jean Sibelius (London: Phaidon Press Limited,
YUNGKANS had to spend a long time thawing out after hearing
this version of Tapiola, after a sudden winter storm hit
his neighborhood - and this in "sunny" California.
2.11.2000 ©Jonathan Yungkans
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