Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.4

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.4, in the second of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies

photo Sebastien Grébille

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 Philharmonia and Herbert von Karajan, recorded for EMI.

What’s the music?

© Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.4 in A minor, Op.63 (1899) (38 minutes)

What about the music?

‘Maybe the strongest and profoundest of all his symphonies’ – the sentiments from Sir Simon Rattle on this piece, echoing similar thoughts from a previous Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan, who described it as ‘upsetting’.

Sibelius had an operation for suspected throat cancer the year before the Fourth Symphony was composed, and although it was successful for many years his mind was in a state of acute worry that the tumour might return. It is this form of sentiment that casts a long shadow over the music, though some have also interpreted the piece as a prophetic statement ahead of the First World War, just three years away.

It is not an easy work to listen to by any means, full of dark shadows, wary thoughts and a great foreboding, with little in the way of consolation even at the end.

Sibelius writes music of great concentrated power through incredibly resourceful use of his orchestra, especially the lower parts, and by once again linking many of the prominent melodies. A lot of them use the ‘tritone’, an awkward interval that creates a great deal of tension. If you play a ‘C’ natural on the piano and follow it with an ‘F sharp’, that is a tritone – the furthest you can get from musical resolution.

Many Sibelius commentators have come to regard the Fourth as his finest symphonic achievement, because of the power of its emotions and because of the refusal to conform to symphonic convention. Not many symphonies end in such bleakness!

Performance verdict

The music of Sibelius does not always appear to come naturally to the Berlin Philharmonic, but in the Fourth they sound completely at odds with the composer’s preoccupations.

The slow movement in particular harnesses great power from the strings, the second movement throws short phrases around in an edgy dance of death, while the contemplation of the first and fourth movements echoes Sibelius’s insecurity and dread.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (marked Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio) (moderately fast but also quite slow at times)

1:46:00 – Sibelius immediately sets the tone with subterranean bass sounds and a brooding melody on solo cello. Already the texture is thinned to a minimum but gradually the strings add weight to the contemplative figure. The warning note at 1:48:45 is telling.

1:50:13 – a short statement on brass that reappears frequently in this movement.

1:54:06 – a sharp volley of timpani ushers in a tortured phrase from the strings before the brass figure appears again at 1:54:58. The lower strings bring back their music from the very start of the symphony before the music subsides to a quiet finish.

Second movement (marked Allegro molto vivace) (quick and very lively)

1:56:51 – quick violas and a relatively chirpy melody on oboe offer the possibility of a much more positive outlook, but the music remains edgy, despite attempts at a few charming dances in the central section, and this edginess prevails in the exchange of short phrases between strings and wind. The end arrives suddenly at 2:01:23.

Third movement (marked Il tempo largo) (very slow)

2:01:55 – this is music of real desolation, as first flute and then clarinet deliver solos over downcast bass strings. As Sir Simon Rattle remarked, this is the closest anyone really gets in a symphony to capturing the loneliness Shostakovich was able to convey. With Sibelius however there is more anguish than dread.

2:06:42 – the cellos begin a long, winding phrase that starts in the depths but ascends right through to the heights. This is taken up by the violins, music of a heavy heart but still – in my view at least! – searching for a positive outcome. At 2:09:46 this music returns for the whole strings to an accompaniment of alternating woodwinds, exerting great cumulative power.

2:11:42 – again, the big winding phrase returns, with even greater impact, bolstered by brass and timpani, Sibelius finding strength in depth but with the unremitting darkness still present, descending fully at the end some two minutes later.

Fourth movement (marked Allegro) (fast)

2:14:02 – the final movement starts with barely a break, and it sounds as if Sibelius is trying but ultimately failing to find some happier dance music for the orchestra to play.

2:16:29 – a little consolation offered here from the woodwind and horns, before the strings offer positivity in their unison melodies.

2:19:22 – the possibility of a positive finish to the piece is building, the energy and momentum made known through bursts of melody for the orchestra and the start of a small cell of notes in the strings, similar to that used to generate power in the Third Symphony. Gradually however the music becomes less certain again, and confirmation of the returning bleakness is found at 2:22:27. Now there is utter darkness from the lower strings.

Want to hear more?

After the Fourth Symphony a musical breather is definitely required before tackling anything else – and so the suggestion would be one of the composer’s lighter works for orchestra, Rakastava– which can be found starting on the fifth track on this all-Sibelius album:

For more concerts click here

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