Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.2

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.2, part of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies

Credit: newspaper.li

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

Listening link (opens in a new window):


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 and Sir Colin Davis:

What’s the music?

© Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.2 in D major, Op.43 (1901-2) (44 minutes)

What about the music? Just two years after his first symphony, Sibelius showed he was really warming to the form with the second. Before the writing of his Second Symphony, Sibelius visited Rapallo in Italy.

While there, however, his children’s health suffered, and he completed the work back in Finland in 1902.
As a concert piece the Second is especially popular, for its positivity and economy – despite running for 44 minutes it feels like barely a second of music is wasted. It also follows a classic ‘darkness to light’ trajectory, where some of the more troubled music in the middle movements is removed by a finale that crosses into much brighter music.

Commentators admire the piece for its construction, Sibelius managing the difficult trick of appealing to the academic through the close relation of each of his melodies, while appealing to the casual listener through the direct emotion and memorable themes.

Performance verdict

This is a thoroughly convincing performance, with Rattle keen not to over-romanticise the Second Symphony but allowing the music its full feeling when the climax of the finale arrives.

The performance is also aware of Sibelius’s technical mastery, and it feels as if the whole piece hangs together as one, each section aware of the ones around it, all the while heading for the big climax to the last of the four movements.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (which has a whole host of tempo markings)

1:10:17 – the symphony begins like a boat bobbing at sea, with six in a bar rather than the normal four. The mood is positive if not altogether settled in one mood.

1:13:10 – a gathering of momentum, the opening subject reappearing in the ‘dominant’* key. This is a sign Sibelius is closely following a more classical form of symphonic thought.

1:16:43 – the sheer ‘togetherness’ of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra can be fully appreciated here in the strings’ tune, but also in the superlative contribution of the brass. The strings’ pizzicato at 1:18:38 is another example of near-faultless ensemble.

1:19:20 – a return to the music of the opening, but Sibelius seems distracted and the music closes.

Second movement (again, a large number of tempo markings)

1:19:58 – you might need to turn the volume up a bit here, as the murky start to the second movement unfolds, before a solemn woodwind chorale around one minute in.

1:22:34 – a climax point of sorts is reached over a low bassoon note but the music remains restless, and the cadence point from 1:23:30 turns the music to the minor key and a greater degree of anxiety. This figure subtly dominates the arguments of the whole movement, though when it returns at 1:28:25 Rattle makes the music sound much less certain of its direction.

1:31:52 – finally the music arrives at greater surety, and the held bass note supports a show of strength while the strings sing above. However barely 20 seconds later and the violin lines twist – back to the old anxiety in the minor key again, where it ends at 1:34:03.

Third movement (Predominantly marked as Vivacissimo – very lively)

1:34:24 – quick tremolo figures on strings hurry us through the opening bars of this movement.

1:36:03 – the trio section is reached, with a much slower theme from the oboe that swells when transferred to the strings.

1:37:18 – the genial mood is short-lived as the scherzo returns, with even greater vigour from Rattle this time on the strings’ tremolos.

1:38:57 – the oboe melody from the trio again, this time scarred after the rude interruption.

1:40:06 – the big build-up begins, with ascending scales to lead straight into…

Fourth movement (again, a large number of tempo markings)

1:40:22 – Rattle is much less ‘triumphant’ than some conductors here, as if the ending of the symphony still has to be earned. This is still terrifically rousing music, however, especially when the tune returns at 1:41:06. Again we hear some of the Tchaikovsky from the First Symphony.

1:44:28 – a much quieter recollection of the movement’s main tune. This passage is almost Schubert-like in its delicacy.

1:46:49 – a return to the big unison string theme, sweeping all before it – though to me the accompaniment still feels a little ‘at sea’ in the undulating bass. However the return of the theme for the full orchestra quashes most of that. Then the music subsides to the middle distance, before building again, seemingly over the wave – but in the minor key, all the way until 1:52:46, when the music shifts irrevocably to the major – and a tremendous orchestral wall of sound takes us over the finish line, headed by a brass chorale, to the end at 1:54:13.

Want to hear more?

The best thing to suggest after Sibelius’s Second Symphony…is the Third! This is a very different animal, as Arcana will explore in the next instalment of Rattle’s cycle.

In the meantime a suggested interlude would be the Valse triste, part of some music Sibelius wrote for his brother-in-law’s play Kuolema. It is available to listen to here:

For more concerts click here

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