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A right way to play Sibelius? Oh, fffff’s sake.

April 22, 2015 by norman lebrecht

15 comments.


The silliest piece of the Sibelius year, so far.

A London critic didn’t like the Berlin Philharmonic performances of the Sibelius symphonies because they’re not what he’s used to. So he concludes they cannot be right.

Then the critic equivocates a bit before deciding that the performances paid ‘little heed to the spirit of a score.’

As if that can spirit be defined, bottled and marketed as authentic.

Music in print is an approximation of an imagined sound. Interpreters exist to make sense of it, according to their own lights – northern or otherwise.

Read here. Sad to see such nonsense in the Strad, and from a former Gramophone writer.

sibelius gallen-kalleia-drunk


Comments (15)

  1. Anne says:

    He explains why. He has his opinion, you have yours. What’s the problem for heaven’s sake?

  2. ElizaF says:

    No problem, Anne. It is how the site makes money. You say something provocative, and then people click on the story – thus generating advertising revenue.

  3. AZ Cowboy says:

    Two things:
    1) I love the Sibelius symphonies and have acquired many sets on cd. Too many the wife says. Of those, the Rattle on EMI is one of my least favorite. I know in many circles it get high praise, but I’ll take Blomstedt, Jarvi, Maazel, Bernstein, and others any day over Sir Rattle.
    2) I would expect any real review of the 4th to comment on one endlessly troubling issue: did the percussion section use a glockenspiel or tubular bells (or a combination). Too bad Sibelius wasn’t more specific.

    1. Brian B says:

      Have you heard Akeo Watanabe’s set that once appeared on American Columbia? They’re by and large superb–and never reissued in their entirety.
      Sibelius was very positive about the Karajan recordings he heard:
      As you know, I have always been
      a great admirer of Mr v. Karajan and his magnificent rendering of my works has given me
      the keenest satisfaction. Especially in the Fourth Symphony, his great artistic line and the
      inner beauty of the interpretation have deeply impressed me […]” (Legge 1998: 202–
      203) Writing again to Legge in May of the following year, Sibelius repeated his high
      opinion of Karajan: “You have perhaps wondered why I have not written to you before and
      thanked you for the excellent recordings of my Fourth and Fifth Symphony [sic]. I now
      have heard them many times and can only say that I am happy. Karajan is a great master.
      His interpretation is superb, technically and musically.” (Legge 1998: 203)7
      Legge wrote
      that Sibelius described Karajan as: “[…] the only one who plays what I meant”, (Schwarzkopf
      1982: 231) and Legge also reported that, shortly after he delivered test pressings of
      Karajan’s recordings of Symphonies 4 and 7 and Tapiola to Sibelius, the latter told him:
      “Karajan is the only man who really understands my music: our old friend Beecham always
      makes it sound as if he had learned it and conducted it from a first fiddle part.” (Schwarz

    2. Pirkko says:

      2) It definitely must be the glockenspiel, not the tubular bells. The latter was a mistake by the publisher.

  4. Alexander Hall says:

    No less bewildering are the comments posted on this site in recent days about the apparent lack of talent of one Daniel Barenboim. Anybody who attended the two concerts with the Staatskapelle Berlin given in the Festival Hall on Monday and Tuesday of this week will have been left in no doubt about the quality of this extraordinary musician and great human being. Oh, and by the way, the London critics were unanimous in their praise of the performances.

  5. Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I once (alas, not any longer) owned a letter in Sibelius’s hand replying to a German correspondent’s question if the Fourth Symphony could be considered a “nature symphony”. Sibelius’s one sentence reply was ” Ja, ja, it is a nature symphony.” Interesting. Although I no longer own the letter, I vividly remember the content as I found it surprising.

    1. Michael Schaffer says:

      In what language was the letter, in Finnish, English, or German?

      1. Gaffney Feskoe says:

        German.

        1. Michael Schaffer says:

          Thanks. That’s what I would have expected in this context, since Sibelius spoke very good German (there is also a recording of him speaking in German). I was just a little confused by your mixing of German and English.

  6. Brian B says:

    Sibelius certainly approved of the HvK’s recordings of his music that he heard. From a monograph by David Pickett:
    As you know, I have always been
    a great admirer of Mr v. Karajan and his magnificent rendering of my works has given me
    the keenest satisfaction. Especially in the Fourth Symphony, his great artistic line and the
    inner beauty of the interpretation have deeply impressed me […]” (Legge 1998: 202–
    203) Writing again to Legge in May of the following year, Sibelius repeated his high
    opinion of Karajan: “You have perhaps wondered why I have not written to you before and
    thanked you for the excellent recordings of my Fourth and Fifth Symphony [sic]. I now
    have heard them many times and can only say that I am happy. Karajan is a great master.
    His interpretation is superb, technically and musically.” (Legge 1998: 203)7
    Legge wrote
    that Sibelius described Karajan as: “[…] the only one who plays what I meant”, (Schwarzkopf
    1982: 231) and Legge also reported that, shortly after he delivered test pressings of
    Karajan’s recordings of Symphonies 4 and 7 and Tapiola to Sibelius, the latter told him:
    “Karajan is the only man who really understands my music: our old friend Beecham always makes it sound as if he had learned it and conducted it from a first fiddle part.”

  7. SVM says:

    It is funny that, at a time when we bemoan the homogenisation of the orchestral sound around the world, critics complain of too much variety in interpretation. It is not the orchestra’s job to tick the box of staying in a critic’s comfort-zone, and it *is* the job of a critic to rise above such petty personal considerations when availing himself/herself of his/her free ticket. There is no reason why only composers should be entitled to hold distinctive styles and personalities. Surely, it is more interesting to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play Sibelius in its so-called “Mahlerian” style, than to hear it ape the so-called “Arctic” manner that is the wont of many orchestras when playing Sibelius. I was not at any of the Rattle Sibelius cycle, but I heard much of it on the radio, and must say that I found the rich string sound incredibly effective at times, and particularly appreciated Rattle’s handling of tempo in the last movement of the 2nd Symphony.

  8. Gonout Backson says:

    Oh, you know, the “only right ways”… I remember (among many others, including meeself) a wise critic disqualifying one interpretation of a Brahms symphony (in a “blind test”) as “decidedly un-brahmsian” (with many negative details, concerning sound, accents, phrasing, tempos etc).

    It was the Berlin Philharmonic with Jochum.

    1. Brian b says:

      Though it was the BPO and Jochum, that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t indeed un-Brahmsian. As well that the critic could have been talking through his hat.

  9. Mark Stratford says:

    ==The silliest piece of the Sibelius year, so far.

    No, it’s the silliest blog entry of the year. The article made some fair points


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