The English Touch
Avery Fisher Hall
Jean Sibelius: En saga, Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)
Nowadays it is exceedingly rare for the Symphony # 3 of Jean Sibelius to be called the “English” symphony, but, in its day, the appellation was appropriate to mark a sea change in the expressive language of the composer. The inspiration for the piece was apparently gleaned on a trip to Britain; certainly the overall impression is dramatically different than that of its predecessor. While the 2nd is full of the big gesture and the sweep that we now associate with the most famous of all Finnish composers, the 3rd eschews all romance and breadth and concentrates instead on protoneoclassical balance and grace. The voice of Sibelius was indeed a unique one, but parallels may be drawn in his aesthetic career to that of Carl Nielsen, who also turned to the charm and discipline of the era of Haydn at just the same time in his symphonic output. The sound of the woodland is left behind and the harmonic structure of courtly music is resurrected in a most elegantly understated manner-thoroughly English. As such, the London Symphony and its distinguished director Sir Colin Davis turned in a first rate performance, communing in a manner simply bred in the bone.
What was more surprising were the outstanding readings of the other two pieces, more stereotypically Sibelius in sonic effect. En saga was suitably mysterious and atmospheric, the LSO strings given an opportunity to express a wide range of tonal and panoramic effects (the young composer, still struggling with the idea of becoming a violinist, lets his coloristic sense show with a variety of bowing and bridging tricks). For the enormous Fifth Symphony, Sir Colin pulled out all of the stops, emphasizing the extreme contrast between this type of expansiveness and the previous dalliance with the measured and balanced. Much happened to Sibelius between 1907 and 1915: depression (manifested so alarmingly in the 4th) and world events colored his moods in deep earth tones which would hold sway for the remainder of his life (the struggling artist is always held in higher esteem by posterity than the contented one). Here this magnificent orchestra performed superbly, the brass section, which had so thrilled the afternoon before in Grimes, again steady and stentorian, never yielding to bad habits of slurring or fuzzy intonation. The strings dug deeply into their parts, the winds suitably hollow and echo-swept in that signature Sibelian timbre. I had heard Sir Colin conduct this work a few seasons ago at the Phil; there the rendition was lacking something, the great washes of sound mere trickles, but last evening, with his hometown gang in tow, he built a gigantic edifice of atavistic wonder into which all were invited to enter and share the healing vision of northern light. Except for the one patron who felt the need to applaud mid-way through the first of the ending grand pauses, this was a spectacular performance.
In keeping with tonight’s British theme, as the Pythons used to say, “…and now for some shameless self-promotion”:
A NEW SERIES
MY DINNER WITH ANDREW
A MONTH AT CARNEGIE HALL
April may be the cruelest month, but February is the coldest, shortest and dreariest. Warm your cockles a bit by joining our own Frederick L. Kirshnit in an exclusive month of reporting from the bosom of the world’s most famous concert venue. Still stunned by the attempted takeover of this hallowed ground by the New York Philharmonic, Kirshnit examines many of the most crucial issues in classical music today as he covers fifteen nights of performance, including at least one from each of Carnegie’s three unique spaces. By the end of it, we should all have an opinion about the successes and failures of contemporary music executives as they struggle to maintain an ageless tradition in a rapidly changing world. Love them or hate them, these articles should at least make the reader come out of hibernation. Join us beginning February 4th at www.concertonet.com.
Frederick L. Kirshnit