Saturday, May 15, 2010


Not so long ago, we took the train from Helsinki's imposing granite art noveaux-goes-Nordic railway station. It was opened in 1919, the same year Sibelius had finished revising his fifth symphony into the one we hear played today.

We were heading north 40 km through the wet green Finnish countryside to Jarvenpaa, on Lake Tuusula, in search of Ainola where Jean Sibelius and his wife Aino lived from 1904 till his death in 1957, and she for a further 12 years.

There was hardly anyone on the train and the small town without life except for some movement around the local station and its small cafe. We bought coffee, cakes, a local map, and set off. It was a lonely bleak place.

The lake was deserted, wild and wind swept.

(yes, that's K, having a Beethoven-Sibelioid moment)

It may have been summer, but the little paddle boats were idle.

We were alone, as Sibelius was I imagine, when he saw the sixteen swans and heard the swan hymn that was to become the thematic core of his fifth symphony.

"Just before ten-to-eleven I saw sixteen swans. One of the greatest experiences of my life. Oh God, what beauty: they circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the hazy sun like a glittering, silver ribbon. Their cries were of the same woodwind timbre as those of cranes, but without any tremolo ... Nature's mystery and life's melancholy." (#1)

He was writing the 5th at the same time as the 6th, a prolonged genesis as he struggled with his God, pantheism, the aftermath of a World War, a Russian revolution and Russian oppression, a Finnish civil war, the pulls to the atonal modernity of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and not least, the deadline of his 50th birthday. That he stuck to his own "sonic path" is evident, among other things, in the winding back of dissonance, like the shocking trumpet interjections, from his first 4 movement 1915 version to the final 3 movement 1919 one, by which time he had already started work on his 7th, a sublime stream of consciousness of affirmation over uncertainty, a wisp of doubt lingering at the end. An 8th was to be burnt after years of unhappy work, and the green tiled fireplace is all that remains. You look at it, staring into its mouth, and wonder about that night.

Sir Malcolm Sargent was conducting the 5th in Helsinski at the very moment in 1957 when Jean Sibelius died aged 91 at Ainola, his home for fifty years.

I drove up to town for last Wednesday's Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 'Meet The Music' Concert, a concert billed as 'Harmony from Heaven', a concert where symphony declared itself in content rather than form, and where revision, and revision, was a common feature of the programmed works.

Beethoven Leonore Overture No 3
Lentz Gugyuhmgan
Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Sibelius Symphony No. 5

I went for the Sibelius. The young Australian conductor was Matthew Coorey. That he is 'only 24' (make that '36' see comments) goes 'a certain' (make that 'little' see comments) way to explaining that we were given a disappointing swanless reading, with K, the most generous of commentators, resorting to expressions like: it could have been churned out from an organ barrel. And the horns were at it again. And the double bass were up to some strange banging of bows making the oddest of sounds in the last movement when resolution is otherwise on the rise. But, it was "Meet the Music", and the audience was peppered with schoolchildren, fabulous young enthusiastic teenagers, talking, enjoying, yelling and whistling, and they loved it, loved the ending, and loved that they missed it. That was more than enough to make it worthwhile.

George Lentz's Guyuhmgan, as it turned out, was the highlight of the night. I've no idea how he expects it to sound, but its cosmic landscapes were wonderful, and the contra winds played off each other with great elan, and joy, by the look. The silent moments, of which the always insightful Andrew Ford made fair warning, were there, but for me, just not long enough, nor challenging enough. I'm all for silences.

#1 BIS CD Booklet notes - Sibelius Symphony No 5, Original and Final Versions, Osmo Vanska


Anonymous said...

I went on Thurs. The audience was warned about the ending, so no premature clapping. Agree that the Sibelius was disappointing and far too matter-of-fact. Beethoven ho-hum. Stravinsky a bit hard to take in (over before started, or so it seemed) and Lentz the most interesting if not quite so effective as the viola piece we most recently heard.

But back to the Sibelius: just plain ordinary, really. It might be almost a warhorse but obviously it doesn't just play itself. I didn't mind the double bass bow effects, though they are not the conventional interpretation.

However, I'm not sure if you can make such allowance for Coorey's youth. He may be young for a conductor, but according to his Google entry (and this tallies with my memories of him as a Con High student and one of Uncle Warren's helpers in the 1992 SIPCA)he was born on 25 October 1973, which makes him more like 36 and a half rather than the 24 you mention.

wanderer said...

M, I was trying hard to be generous. The Beethoven and Stravinsky I couldn't even bring myself to mention they were so dull and lifeless.

I didn't search Coorey, but after the concert was told to take that age into consideration when I was sounding off about how bad it had been.

I stand, unhappily (as it leaves a worse conclusion) corrected.