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.
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.