Some years ago my wife and I visited friends in Tampere, Finland. We attended a concert by the Tampere Philharmonic and the programme began with a performance of the Sibelius (1865-1957)1st Symphony. Excepting Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and of course Finlandia, I had heard very little music by this revered Finnish icon. Further, I was not particularly interested in hearing his music, ignoring it as I had for instance, the music of Carl Nielson. Though relegating both to some distant and dim back burner, their flame never-the-less refused to go out, eventually demanding attention.
In Tampere, Sibelius grabbed my full attention. My good friend, Tiina Laukkanen has been the timpanist of the orchestra for over 20 years. (See my article, “Helsinki & Tampere Finland”.) The 1st Symphony begins with a soft timpani roll and the house was quietly awaiting its sound. The audience reminded me of one I had encountered at a new music concert in Reykjavik, Iceland. Before the concert a man addressed the audience. I had never heard the Icelandic language spoken and was over awed by its archaic sound. In my imagination, we were transported back to the time of the Icelandic Sagas. We were in a church and excepting the speaker’s voice, complete silence reigned. The atmosphere of complete attention was palpable.
The performance of Sibelius was met with the same attention and I began to learn a bit about the spell the music of Sibelius has cast upon his devotees.
Not long ago I purchased a CD of Mravinsky recordings with the Leningrad Philharmonic, Melodiya MCD 223, The Mravinsky Legacy, Volume 4. Evgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Orchestra for fifty years, 1938-1988, and is credited with establishing the orchestra’s great precision and control of dynamics. I listened to the single movement Sibelius 7th Symphony, recorded in 1965 and I, in the word of my friend Bill Cahn “Epihed”, (from epiphany) when the trombone heralded forth its first solo. It sings again near the end, this time accompanied by an equally bold trumpet.
And so, the purpose of this article? Why has this stentorian style of playing disappeared? The Leningrad Orchestra now has modern brass and wind instruments and players and conductors are favouring an homogenist style in keeping with modern practices. Perhaps. But listen again and ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it be thrilling to hear a blatant, unabashed declaration such as this, pealing forth from a modern symphony orchestra?”
Recently Tiina sent me the symphonies and other famous works of Sibelius recorded by the Bourenmouth Symphony Orchestra directed by Paavo Allan Engelbert Berglund (1929-2012).* I had been reluctant to commit to a particular conductor and orchestra and Tiina solved my dilemma in one fell swoop. All the performances are worthy listening, but for entry level Sibelius explorers, the relevatory rendition of Finlandia is recommended.
* EMI Classics a 1012 compilation of recordings made between 1972 and 1982.