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Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.1

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.1, the start of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 11 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051czq9

on the iPlayer until 11 March

For non-UK listeners, here is a Spotify link. Although Sir Simon has recorded the first symphony, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I could not find this for listening. I have therefore inserted a ‘replacement’ version with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis:

What’s the music?


© Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.1 in E minor, Op.39 (1899) (39 minutes)

What about the music? With his first symphony Sibelius begins one of the most important canons of music in the 20th century. Quite appropriately the work sits just at the turn of the century, absorbing influences from the likes of Berlioz and Tchaikovsky but showing signs of speaking with a new and very clear voice.

It is also clear that the 33-year old composer already has a very strong instinct for structure and what commentators call ‘symphonic thought’. Sibelius structures the four movements in a way that acknowledges the past masters in the form, but there is some really vital and emotional material here too.

Although the symphony does not have a subtitle it was interpreted as Nationalistic by the Finnish people, especially as the Russian presence in and dominance over the country was increasing all the time. but showing signs of speaking with a new and very clear voice.

Performance verdict

Sir Simon Rattle finds the drama in this music from the off, but is keen to also show off the inner workings of Sibelius’s distinctive orchestration – an invitation the Berlin Philharmonic is hardly going to pass up!

There is a lean sound to the strings, and particularly the violins, with very little in the way of padding to the sound. The sense of music pushing forward is always there, Rattle focused on the symphony’s overall sweep rather than picking out particular solos.

The woodwind playing is superb, and because the orchestra are so well drilled Rattle’s tempi make sense – a quick first movement and Scherzo work really well here. Occasionally the conductor is a bit perfunctory where others make more of the Romantic gestures, but that is a question of taste rather than accuracy.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (marked Andante, ma non troppo – Allegro energico) (at a walking pace but not too fast…then fast and energetic)

4:00 – the clarinet solo that begins the work, wonderfully played by the Berlin Philharmonic clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer with quietly rolling timpani in the background

6:28 – the culmination of the first part of the first movement, with surging strings and simmering lower voices of the orchestra

12:04 – the main idea of the first movement sings out on the violins, with timpani thundering in response

14:00 – a tremendous build up from the orchestra, which subsides to two pizzicato chords from the strings (14:41)

Second movement (marked Andante (ma non troppo lento)) (at a walking pace, but not becoming too slow)

15:22 – the murky beginning to the second movement, beginning almost as an apparition of Tchaikovsky in the melody for strings

18:24 – the pulsing woodwind lead to a more luxuriant passage supported by harp

20:47 – Rattle moves up a gear here, the distinctive motif passed from strings to woodwind

23:05 – a return to the main theme, a little detached on violins now, subsiding to the end (24:50)

Third movement (Scherzo*: marked Allegro) (fast)

25:07 – quick, urgent delivery of the distinctive seven-note theme from Rattle and his charges here. The timpani once again are at the root of much of Sibelius’ thinking when writing for orchestra.

27:02 – the trio, a brass chorale that sounds slightly awkward in its means of expression (not a criticism!)

29:04 – the scherzo theme returns and the music wheels ever faster to its end (30:17)

Fourth movement (marked Finale: Andante – Allegro molto – Andante assai – Allegro molto come prima – Andante (ma non troppo)( alternating slow and fast passages)

30:26 – the passionate outpouring from the violins with which the fourth movement begins. The music gathers itself until…

32:57 – a quick statement of a faster tune. Rattle is quite matter-of-fact here; some conductors allow the music to take a big breath at this point, but Rattle surges forwards

35:10 – a thick string section and harps with another deeply felt tune

38:02 – a reflective and almost sorrowful return to the clarinet theme from the first movement, joined by the woodwind

39:20 – a sublime expansion of this melody on the strings, waking the ghost of Tchaikovsky once again. All this takes place over huge, long bass ‘pedal’ notes, a great illustration of the massive expanse Sibelius can achieve with the orchestra. Then there is a build towards the end (41:57) at which point Rattle slows, labouring the big chords, until the big fnish, timpani right at the limit (42:50)

Want to hear more?

The best thing to suggest after Sibelius’s First Symphony…is his Second, coming up soon on Arcana!

Glossary

*Scherzo – a term used for a faster section of music, usually placed second or third in a piece that has four movements. It originated with Beethoven and his contemporaries, who often added a touch of humour to the music.

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