January 7, 2014 6:09 pm

All the best: Sibelius symphonies

Interpretations of the Finnish composer’s work have become more varied in recent years
Sibelius in 1949©Getty Images

Sibelius in 1949

The homes of composers have long fascinated me, and Sibelius’s log villa, Ainola, more than most. Named after his long-suffering wife Aino, the house sits in a wooded landscape about half an hour’s drive from Helsinki airport. The Finnish composer and his young family took up residence in 1904, and he died there 53 years later, aged 91. Everything from the Third Symphony onwards was written at Ainola. It was supposed to isolate him from the temptations of the city but, at least initially, he often went to Helsinki on drunken binges.

Ainola is now a museum. Unlike some composer houses, there is no recorded music. In the main room you will find a painting of the spectre of death, observing a woman who lies prostrate over the corpse of her child. Beneath it is the piano Sibelius would play in memory of his infant daughter Kirsti, who died in 1900.

Brooding melancholy? The atmosphere, strong as it is, provides little evidence as to what Sibelius’s music may be “about”. Sometimes it seems to describe a landscape of forest and lake, etched with flickers of sun and the bleakness of winter, as in the Sixth Symphony. Sometimes it evokes the folk legends and patriotic ideals that inspired Sibelius and his countrymen a century ago, as Finland asserted its nationhood: such is Kullervo, his early choral symphony.

A metaphysical element looms large – the sense of being surrounded by primordial forces that rumble and shift towards resolution, as in the Fifth Symphony. There’s also a temperamental streak – the gloomy Fourth, impassive on the surface, volcanic beneath. As for the Seventh, well, its language is so compressed and seamless that you can’t blame Sibelius for downing tools at 60: there was nowhere else for him to go. The only surviving evidence of him conducting his music is a performance of the Andante festivo in 1939.

For much of the 20th century, the spectrum of interpretation was limited. The question was less how you played Sibelius’s music than whether you played it: German intellectuals, led by Theodor Adorno, dismissed it as un-symphonic. For those who admired Sibelius, mainly in the English-speaking world, the fascination lay in his remarkable feats of concision, and how he developed his arguments so atmospherically and organically. In performance it was all to do with timbre and architecture – spaciousness and scale being more important than volatile contrasts.

The gramophone played a vital part in consolidating this early tradition: you can hear it on 1930s recordings conducted by Robert Kajanus and Serge Koussevitzky, both of whom Sibelius admired. The tradition was refined during the early LP era by Anthony Collins and Tauno Hannikainen. The 1950s also saw Herbert von Karajan’s first Sibelius, with the Philharmonia. These granitic, explosive interpretations – still among the best available – are far superior to Karajan’s plush remakes with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Complete sets of the symphonies soon became commonplace. The first stereo cycle featured the Vienna Philharmonic under the young Lorin Maazel – especially effective in the Fourth Symphony. Sir John Barbirolli’s exquisitely phrased and shaded Royal Philharmonic version of the Second is another beacon of this era. Both have stood the test of time – more so than the cycles conducted by Paavo Berglund, Neeme Järvi, Sir Colin Davis and Sir Alexander Gibson.

However, Gibson made exceptionally fine recordings of the tone poems and Scènes Historiques , and Davis’s 2006 LSO Live performance of Kullervo captures its epic personality. As for Leonard Bernstein, his Vienna Philharmonic recordings of the Second, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies have a personal stamp that is wayward but fascinating – not least because they are on DVD as well as CD.

Of the current generation of Finnish interpreters, a clear choice lies between Pietari Inkinen’s gently romantic readings with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and Osmo Vänskä’s revelatory Lahti discography (not his remakes with the Minnesota Orchestra), which portrays a Sibelius of bipolar temperament, worlds away from the traditional school of majestic nature-painting. Volume 12 of “The Sibelius Edition” on BIS includes all the Vänskä/Lahti symphony recordings, plus the little-known original 1915 version of the Fifth, which shows Sibelius dipping into modernism.

Vänskä’s scrupulously researched Sibelius is essential listening. So is Sir Thomas Beecham’s live 1954 BBC Symphony Orchestra performance of the Second Symphony. Now available in a remastering from the original BBC tapes, it has an intensity that has never been rivalled on disc.

This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music. For more ‘All the Best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark, see:

Delius

La traviata

Handel’s Messiah

Mahler symphonies

Lutoslawski

Sergiu Celibidache

Wagner’s Ring

Carlos Kleiber

Goldberg Variations

Ravel’s piano music

Claudio Abbado

Janácek’s operas

Winterreise

Eugene Onegin

Peter Maxwell Davies

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