Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.3

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.3, in the second 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):


on the iPlayer until 12 March

For those unable to hear the broadcast, 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 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI.

What’s the music?

© Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.3 in C major, Op.52 (1907) (27 minutes)

What about the music? ‘The most beloved and least fortunate of my children’, was Sibelius’ description of his Symphony no.3.

I would tend to agree with him – for it is a work that for one reason or another is my personal favourite among the composer’s seven symphonies.

It is effectively the start of a new phase of development for the composer, an enigmatic piece of work that deliberately shies away from the relatively grand gestures of the first two symphonies and adopts a leaner frame. Gone are the big, romantic sweeps – for here is music that uses the orchestra with greater economy and a more obvious focus on rhythmic cells, the sort of busy orchestral sounds that begin to look forward towards the ‘minimal’ writing of Steve Reich and John Adams.

Sir Simon Rattle notes this as well, comparing the change in Sibelius’ writing to a Finnish trait he had discovered, which is that when they have finished speaking, they walk away. He said the same of the music in this symphony, which explains why it stops suddenly!

Performance verdict

Rattle sees a lot of graceful figures in this symphony, where other conductors prefer more obvious rhythmic thrust. In fact the energy sags in the middle of the first movement, until the momentum begins to build.

This also occurs in the finale, so I found this was a reading with less ‘cut and thrust’ than I personally would want to hear in this piece. There is, however, a rather beautiful slow movement placed second, for which Rattle clearly has considerable affection.

First movement (marked Allegro moderato) (moderately fast)

4:05 – the lower strings start with a murky figure that grows like a sort of atomic fission

5:22 – a contrasting theme on the cellos, more lyrical – which starts to break apart at 5:53 and wheel around in a circle, rhythmically

8:49 – we hear the second theme on the bassoon above the increasingly agitated violas, returning to the main tune at 9:39

11:45 – the rolling of the timpani is prominent as the rhythmic figure continues to get passed around the orchestra. Then the texture thins at 12:18 to plucked strings only, as if pausing for thought, before a solemn statement ends the movement.

Second movement (marked Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto) (quite slow, but not too much)

15:06 – a change of mood and a sense of melancholy to the tune from the woodwind. Clarinet and flute have some rather beautiful short solos here.

19:11 – the woodwind play together in contemplation, the strings responding as the music slows still further at 19:52 – which leads to a return to the tune on clarinets. Listen carefully, however, and you will hear a creeping note in the bass strings that offsets with a mood of uncertainty. The texture is now so much lighter than the previous two symphonies.

22:39 – the strings take up the tune and the music gathers a little more urgency, the mood more optimistic as a result.

Third movement (Moderato – Allegro ma non tanto) (moderately fast – and then a little faster)

24:54 – immediately a return to a positive mood from the woodwind, and a brisk, forward movement after the contemplation of the previous movement.

26:57 – Sibelius’ fascination with repetition continues in this section, with a four-note figure on violins insistent in the background before coming through towards the front. The music grows much more agitated towards a big, timpani-fuelled release at 27:51. Not many of those in this symphony!

29:01 – even in this leaner work Sibelius is still capable of more romantic thoughts, and here is one such instance on full strings, violas and cellos combining in music of great nobility. This passage gathers strength until around 32:00 where another insistent rhythmic figure powers the music through to the finish. A really positive and energetic close to the symphony.

Want to hear more?

After the Symphony no.3, another piece to hear – in the same key – is the incidental music to Pelleas und Melisande – the first bit of which has been used famously by the BBC for the theme tune to The Sky at Night. You can hear it on Spotify here (track 11):

For more concerts click here

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