The Best Piece
20 Jun 2011
Inside the Classics

We’ve just wrapped up an intense week of recording, during which Osmo, producer Rob Suff, and the team from BIS records somehow propelled us through Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto and Sibelius’s 2nd and 5th symphonies without causing anyone to drop dead of exhaustion. I’ve written before about what makes recording weeks so tiring and occasionally frustrating, and this week was no different, but it was also one of the rare times that I’d actually been looking forward to a recording week.

By my count, I’ve played on over a dozen Minnesota Orchestra CDs, and there are more than a few in there that I’m quite proud to have been a part of. But it’s not hyperbole to say that I’ve been waiting my entire career to make a recording of Sibelius 5. This is not just my favorite Sibelius work, not just my favorite symphony – it’s my favorite music, period. I love it more than the Mendelssohn octet, more than Leonard Cohen’s best songs, more than Bach fugues or Brahms symphonies. In my opinion, separating out any peripheral issues like how groundbreaking or influential a work of art is or isn’t, Sibelius 5 is purely and simply the best music ever written.

Um, no. Wrong Sibelius 5.

There are a lot of reasons I believe this, but most of them come down to perfection of pacing, which also means that Sibelius 5 only becomes the best music ever written with the right performance. I actually came fairly late to Sibelius, because most of the recordings of his music that I heard as a kid were heavy, ponderous things presided over by ultra-serious conductors who liked to stretch every phrase to its maximum possible length, as if to convey, through slowness, that this was Important Art. Then, as now, that approach to music did almost nothing for me, and I just assumed that I wasn’t a big Sibelius fan.

That changed one night in 1996, when I made the 45-minute trek from my little college town to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play Sibelius’s 2nd symphony at Severance Hall. (I think the conductor was Jukka-Pekka Saraste, but I’m not even a little bit certain of that.) It was a revelation: played correctly by a really great string section (Cleveland has one of the very best in the world,) the opening swells of that symphony set a mood that wraps around you like a hug, and then propels you forward into Sibelius’s universe of murmuring rhythmic pulses and explosive brass flourishes. I was an instant convert.

I discovered the 5th a couple of years later, and knew instantly that I had found my symphony. From the opening horn call (which somehow manages to sound exactly like a sunrise) to the halting, nervous chattering in the strings that follows, to the propulsive brass arpeggios that herald the opening of the scherzo (which, in Sibelius’s final draft of the piece, is contained within the first movement,) everything is paced to extract the maximum emotional response from the audience.

The first movement ends with an accelerando that lasts for about five minutes, builds to a frenzied climax that refuses to abate, and than slams to a halt with no warning whatsoever. If you play it right, the audience will sometimes audibly gasp as the final chord rips past them – our audiences at Orchestra Hall earlier this spring not only gasped, but some of them jumped in their seats, and there was an audible moment of discombobulation bouncing around the still-electric room…

If you can’t see the audio player, click here to listen…

Okay, I know you can’t hear the gasp over the echo of the final chord, but trust me, there was gasping. Then there was that moment of disconcertion, during which a few people clearly went through a mental progression of “WHOA! Okay, that was… WOW. I should applaud! …no, wait! Maybe I shouldn’t!” You could practically see people’s heart rates being yanked up and down, which is a pretty impressive thing for a piece of music to do. It requires a tremendous amount of musical and emotional setup for a composer to place an audience so squarely in the palm of his hand that a quick right turn into a tonic chord can be enough to cause a physical jolt!

And the end of the finale of the 5th is every bit as impressive, and even more daring on Sibelius’s part. Like the first movement, the finale builds itself up slowly, progresses organically to what is clearly going to be another shattering climax, preps you for a full-on emotional catharsis, and then provides that release not through excess, but through cavernous, pregnant silence.

Click here if you can’t see the player

You could call it the Anti-Tchaikovsky approach. The Russian master specialized in sending waves of sound crashing over his audience like a tidal wave, and then providing exactly the final release he knew we would be craving. Sibelius, by contrast, takes his time and builds the sound in layers, brings us to the edge of the cliff, and then sweeps away and leaves us standing on its edge, filled with the thrill of it all, free to contemplate everything we’ve just been through without actually hurling ourselves into the abyss.

As he was beginning to compose the 5th, in 1914, Sibelius wrote in his notebook that, while the details of the piece were not yet clear to him, he already knew what a monumental work he was embarking on, describing his hoped-for outcome this way: “God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”*

I don’t know about God’s orchestra, or what they like to play. But I know that I’ve never experienced a sense of musical power like the one I feel when I’m a part of a performance of Sibelius 5. It’s perfect, perfect music. I honestly believe that.

*(citation: Michael Steinberg. The Symphony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.)

(Addendum: our recording of Sibelius’s 2nd and 5th symphonies won’t be available for months yet, but Osmo’s recording of two different versions of the 5th with Sinfonia Lahti is a fantastic thing, and well worth a $9 download…)

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