Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.6

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.6, in the last 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, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 13 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 Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä on BIS.


What’s the music?


Sibelius – Symphonyno.6 in D minor, Op.104 (1923) (30 minutes)

What about the music?

The Sixth is often glossed over in the course of the Sibelius symphony cycle, coming as it does between the very popular Fifth and Seventh – but repeated study reveals that musically it is the ideal complement to them both.

The composer himself said it reminded him of ‘the scent of the first snow’, or even, in a wonderful quote, ‘Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water’.

That crisp air is evident right from the beginning of the music, and indeed it is more a succession of feelings rather than obvious tunes that shape the impact of the work. The compact scale of the orchestra recalls the Symphony no.3, but if anything Sibelius goes further in his economical use of the forces available.

In an interview on the radio prior to this performance Sir Simon Rattle draws attention to the panning of the composer’s symphonies by such lofty figures as Theodor Adorno, who regarded him as ‘the worst composer ever’. Each to their own, I suppose, but one listen even to this lesser known symphony shows this is absolutely not the case!’

Rattle chooses to perform the Sixth and Seventh together, without a break, so if you want to hear them individually (which I personally prefer!) you will have to stop listening quickly at 1:31:20.

Performance verdict

This is a brilliantly played and ideally paced account of the Sixth, to my ears, one that captures the outdoors, the listener feeling as though they are stood at an open door catching the air.

The third movement Scherzo is particularly thrilling, but it is the nuances and detail that Rattle captures within the score that ensure each phrase and unit is brought to life.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (marked Allegro molto moderato) (fast but very moderately so)

1:01:45 – immediately there is a serene air to the strings, a cool but bright and refreshing sound. Because the instruments are high the music is weightless, the depth of the orchestra only really heard just over two minutes in.

1:06:25 – a wispy figure winds its way up from the lower strings, the energy levels slightly raised. This leads to a bright, chirpy sequence from the woodwind with more incisive rhythms.

1:09:38 – what feels like a cold wind blows in from the strings and timpani, darkening the music. The end arrives quickly just over a minute later.

Second movement (marked Allegro moderato) (moderately fast)

1:11:01 – a clear beginning to this movement from the woodwind. Flutes and clarinets are prominent in this movement and indeed the whole symphony.

1:12:48 – at this point the music does not have an obvious base, moving around quite quickly with small fragments of melody that are related but seem not to settle, like birds staying on the wing.

1:16:51 – the music labours a bit before the end before quickly breaking up. It is remarkable that Sibelius signs off a piece of music in this abrupt way, effectively adding to his music a firm full stop and a line underneath.

Third movement (marked Poco vivace) (a little lively)

1:17:10 – with Sibelius’s picture of the first snow in mind, this is perhaps the brisk wind on which the snow arrives. Strings swirl around before more detached rhythms assert themselves, and then the brass and timpani add extra depth with sweeping brush strokes.

One of the shortest sections of a Sibelius symphony, this is over in a flash, using a rhythm that rather recalls Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Fourth movement (marked Allegro molto) (very brisk)

1:20:53 – Once again we have an open orchestral sound, with beautifully phrased woodwind figures.

1:22:45 – the strings bring a more vigorous episode into play, harking back to the mood of the previous movement. Despite its positive mood the music still feels restless and unable to settle for long – until 1:23:52, where it takes a stronger root and now has quite a punch through the weight of the string section. There are now some more obvious motifs from the violins in particular.

1:28:16 – a slightly slower and more thoughtful passage from the strings, who come into play much more in this movement.

1:30:55 – the music slows to a pensive close.

Want to hear more?

A good companion piece to the Symphony no.6 is Tapiola, one of Sibelius’s last works – a descriptive piece based on a forest spirit that has an uncannily vivid description of what feels like a passing snow storm.

You can hear it on Spotify here (track 6):

For more concerts click here

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