Saturday, March 17, 2012

In The Dimensions Of Space

Eugene Ormandy, a great Sibelius conductor, never conducted the Third or Sixth symphonies of Sibelius, always claiming he did not understand them.

Ormandy’s stance has always puzzled me, because I have always believed that the Fourth Symphony was the hard nut to crack among Sibelius symphonies, with the enigmatic Seventh not far behind. That Ormandy, a fine conductor of the Fourth, was unable to comprehend the Third or Sixth has always been, to me, inexplicable.

The Sibelius Fourth is an introspective, riddle-filled work. For decades after its 1911 premiere, the work was perceived as “strange”, and was little-favored by the public (it was not to be recorded until 1932). Today the Fourth is regarded as one of the peaks of Sibelius’s output, perhaps because it is the most “modern” of the Sibelius symphonies, what with its ambiguity, compression, density of expression, chamber-music transparency, advanced harmonic idiom and mastery of counterpoint.

Some persons recognized instantly the revolutionary nature of the work. A Finnish critic, writing in the year of the symphony’s premiere, termed the Fourth “a declaration of war against superficiality and empty grandiloquence”; many musicologists believe that the work is entirely personal, a reflection of the composer’s unsettled state of mind after undergoing and surviving a risky operation in which a large cancerous tumor was removed from the composer’s throat.

Whatever Sibelius intended to say in the Fourth (and scholars continue to argue the matter more than a century after the work was first performed), the work is very difficult to bring off in performance.

The Sibelius Fourth probably does not work except in a great performance. In that regard, the Sibelius Fourth is no different than many other major works that only come alive in inspired performances. As examples, I offer both Elgar symphonies, roughly contemporaneous with the Sibelius Fourth, and many of the symphonies of Bruckner.

Osmo Vanska, Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is on record as stating that he views the Sibelius Fourth as a “triumphant” work—although Vanska’s is distinctly a minority view among Sibelius scholars and conductors.

Last evening, Vanska began this weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts with a performance of the Sibelius Fourth.

I sensed no “triumph” in last night’s performance or interpretation. In fact, I sensed very little . . . other than a focus on an accumulation of details that did not cohere into a satisfying performance of the work.

I do not think that Vanska is a great Sibelius conductor. Among living Sibelius conductors, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, surely the finest Sibelius conductor of the day now that Paavo Berglund has passed, has a much surer and much deeper grasp of Sibelius’s music than Vanska. Lorin Maazel brings greater lucidity to the symphonies—but not the tone poems—than Vanska. Colin Davis finds a magisterial quality in the symphonies that completely evades Vanska.

Last night’s audience was restless during the performance of the Sibelius Fourth—hardly surprising, as the performance was an endless succession of surface effects. Vanska got nowhere near the core of the symphony.

After intermission, things improved considerably. Christian Tetzlaff was guest soloist in Szymanowski’s haunting Violin Concerto No. 1, a work that, after decades of neglect, has finally entered the repertory within the last twenty years.

The Szymanowski performance—from soloist, from musicians, from conductor—was magnificent. It was the finest performance I have heard this season in Orchestra Hall.

Tetzlaff is currently in residence in the Twin Cities. In addition to master classes and this weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts, Tetzlaff will perform a solo recital next week and play with and conduct the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra next weekend.

Last night’s concert concluded with a performance of Kodaly’s dazzling Dances Of Galanta, surely Kodaly’s finest composition for full orchestra. The performance was virtuosic, exciting and completely successful—and yet it lacked the sheer sizzle, fire and Hungarian flavor of the incomparable 1962 Sony recording under Ormandy.


[The Sibelius Fourth] is such a flash of genius that there is probably no other equally-original, compact and well-functioning conception from that period. Such a condensed whole . . . and yet we are in the dimensions of space.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste


Update: 7:09 p.m. C.D.T. 17 March 2012

This post is not yet an hour old, but it now requires updating.

Very late this afternoon, Tetzlaff cancelled the rest of his Twin Cities appearances because of a family emergency. Talk in the Twin Cities is that the emergency involves one of Tetzlaff’s parents in Germany.

I am glad Joshua and I attended last night’s concert. Tetzlaff gave a very special performance. He is a great artist.

Josh and I had given some thought to attending tonight’s repeat performance. Tonight’s concert will go on without Tetzlaff, but the Szymanowksi will no longer be part of the program.

Josh and I had tickets for Tetzlaff’s solo recital scheduled for Monday night. We regret that the recital has been cancelled. We have heard Tetzlaff in recital before, and we had looked forward to hearing him again.


  1. Because of his multiple throat operations and his mounting debt – he had to borrow heavily to pay for the surgeries – Sibelius was convinced as early as 1909 that death would soon cut short his art. He had earned only 1500 marks for the Second Symphony after paying 18,000 marks to compose it.

    He turned his back on the world and left with his brother-in-law for Koli, where he drew his inspiration for the Fourth. Had the Composer known that he would live almost a half-century more, the Fourth would have turned out much differently. The Fourth Symphony is Sibelius’s greatest – and most personal – work.

    Sibelius wrote of the Fourth: “A Symphony is not a composition in the ordinary sense of the word. It is an inner confession at a given stage of a man's life . . . Cling on to the Pathos of Life! . . . Why so many empty moments! . . . I suffer so much that my heart bursts in my breast!”

    The Fourth Symphony was greeted with thundering silence on April 3, 1911: The audience at the Helsinki premiere did not know that the Symphony had actually ended – a fitting allegory, I think, for one's state of mind at the very moment of death.

    When I first heard the Fourth, from a DGG recording by Karajan, I thought it the most frightening music I’d ever heard.

    Some people think Ashkenazy is the finest Sibelius interpreter. Not for me. Berglund was – and remains – the greatest modern champion. (I have never heard Saraste's work.) Ashkenazy is too “accurate.” As Berglund wrote about Sibelius, “Accuracy vs. atmosphere: It’s not that simple.”

    I greatly miss maestro Berglund.

  2. I know the Sibelius of Ashkenazy only through the Decca recordings. The Fourth is supposed to be the highlight of Ashkenazy’s Sibelius cycle, I believe, but I have not heard it since I was in high school. I have never been an Ashkenazy fan.

    The Karajan Sibelius Fourth on DGG, from the mid-1960s, is supposed to be the finest of all recorded performances, isn’t it?

    The Saraste Sibelius cycle was issued on RCA, if I am not mistaken. I doubt it remains in print. In fact, the set may have been released only in Europe.

  3. Yes, Karajan's record of the Fourth is somewhat legendary, but I think that is due mainly to the incandescent playing of the Berliners. I've always liked it for that reason alone. The Philharmoniker play as wonderfully here as they do in Karajan's CD of the Nielsen Fourth.

    My favorite, however, is Berglund's from the 1970's with the Bournemouth, an ensemble light-years removed from Karajan's orchestra in terms of precision and beauty of sound. But Berglund simply has the Sibelius idiom under his skin.

    My personal list of Sibelius symphonies, in order of personal preference:


    I place No. 2 last because I OD'd on that work long ago. The less mature First is not heard nearly as often in the concert hall.

    That said, I think No. 6 is the least appreciated of the seven; what an astonishing work is No. 6.

  4. I am too dumb to understand the Fourth or the Seventh. Both works leave me perplexed.

    Accordingly, my list, most-favored to least-favored: No. 6, No. 3, No. 1, No. 2, No. 5, No. 4 and No. 7.

    I place the First above the Second and the Fifth simply because the Second is over-played and because the Fifth is almost impossible to perform well. I have heard more conductors come to grief in the Fifth than in any other work. In fact, I have never heard a convincing performance of the Fifth.

    I truly enjoy the First, which I think is a great symphony, albeit very neo-Tchaikovskian and certainly unlike the works that were to follow. Have you heard Leopold Stokowski’s mid-1970s recording of the First, made for Columbia/Sony? It is unbelievable what the old man, virtually senile at the time, did with the Sibelius. That is one of the all-time great Sibelius recordings, and no one knows it.

    On the matter of the Second: have you heard the two Szell recordings, one made for Philips with the Concertgebouw and the other a live recording made in Japan during Szell’s last tour with Cleveland shortly before Szell’s death?

  5. It appears, from a quick online search, that the Berglund Fourth from Bournemouth is available only as part of a complete cycle.

  6. I haven't heard Stoki's Sibelius First. I am intrigued.

    I HAVE heard Szell's Philips recording of the Second, but it was too long ago for me to remember. I own the 1970 Tokyo performance by Szell and the Cleveland, as part of the 10-CD Szell collection, which is (I presume) now out of print.

    The Tokyo concert was actually video-taped and aired just once in Cleveland. Some idiot technician errased the tape after that broadcast in order to preserve the annual Parma Polka Competition that year.

    (Incidentally, an aircheck of Szell's performance of the Sibelius Third from about 1947 is in the same collection.)

  7. Are there really dangerous icebergs in Minnesota?

  8. According to Artsjournal the Minnesota Orchestra has embarked upon a fiscal heading which may rehearse the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic.

    Sorry, that's what I was asking about.

  9. I did not understand what you were getting at until now—I very seldom read the idiot Eddins. The best I could come up with is that you were making a reference to one of the local sports teams now much in the news.

    That Eddins piece is painful to plow through, primarily because the writing is so bad. That guy is so breathtakingly stupid, he surely sets new standards.