Sibelius Cycle - BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds

John Storgårds conducted a cycle of Sibelius symphonies in Manchester recently which was relayed on BBC Radio 3.  I heard the broadcasts and listened again a couple of times using BBC iPlayer.

I reflected as I listened and revisited scores and writing on these works and mulled over how our appreciation of Sibelius has changed in the last 30 years or so. A useful - if sometimes baffling - academic debate, prompted by James Hepokoski followed and challenged by others, has led to a re-assessment of how we might talk about Sibelius's musical methods: especially the way that the symphonies are both new and old.  Osmo Vänskä recorded cycle of all the composer's significant works (with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra) which included sketches and the original versions of the Fifth Symphony, the Violin Concerto and The Oceanides).  This gave us aural insight on the composer's creative processes.  His works didn't fall out of the sky complete - though the difference between the original Fifth and it's familiar revision is still something like miraculous. Orchestras and conductors all over the world have been picking up the symphonies and the few recorded cycles has burgeoned into many.

With all this in the background it has been good to hear how the expert conductors of the Nordic lands have got their teeth into the symphonies with renewed insight and energy.  I've enjoyed hearing Saraste, Segerstam, Sakari, Vänskä, Oramo and now Storgårds in the most testing of these works - and whilst recorded cycles amass, it's also comforting to see how Sibelians get complete cycles of their hero's symphonies in concert in a way many other composers don't. I think his brevity and aural landscpaing has much to do with that.

Storgårds leads an orchestra which I have frequently described in this blog as one of the finest around: technically I think the most proficient you'll hear but also flexible and hard working.  Under their chief conductor there's a fizz about them but with Storgårds there has - from what I've heard - been something of a bedding in process.  It was perhaps a risk at the end of a long season to devote three concerts just to Sibelius symphonies - in the end it was a glorious celebration of the composer and, as ever with this composer, the private moments revealed a great understanding too.

I have to admit Symphony No 1 is not doing much for me nowadays - it reeks of Tchaikovsky's later style to which I'm periodically allergic.  It has all the hallmarks of Sibelius for sure but not that most telling undercurrent of the private voice which we associate with later works. Finnish nationalism was a worthy propellant for this music and I dare say some early advocates would have baulked a little at Storgårds rigourous examination of the work. Under such scrutiny it falls flat for me - though teh playing was excellent.  I won't dwell on it, but if you enjoy a straight-forward approach to your Sibelius First then I think it was as good as you would hear anywhere.

It was Vänskä who opened my ears to the unnerving, unhinged moments in the Second Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in 2004 - a performance that left audience and orchestra shocked and somewhat disturbed.  The old war horse has it turns out many very modern undercurrents in it if pressed hard.  Storgårds was a tad less experimental and I found more in his ear for the incidental, the rich variety of Sibelius' support for the great melodies was intriguing and subtlety revealed.  It has been the gateway for many to get into this composer's music - it is ideal for that.  Storgård's reading does nothing to offend but it won't hang on the memory like the readings I've heard by Tilson-Thomas, Salonen, Karajan's or that hot night with Vänskä.

Storgårds chose Sibelius Third Symphony to finish his first Prom last year - Delius, Grieg and Nørgård completing a "Nordic" programme.  The reading was sprightly but ultimately struggled where most readings fall, in the finale.  I wonder if this ambivalent movement stuck between these arguments between old and new style is too tough: it was after all the nut that Karajan refused to crack.  I'm happy to report that this performance - a tad slower, much cleaner in sound and more controlled - fulfilled the conductor's ambition.  At it's best, it is a concise summation of the composer's control of musical momentum - we heard that brought out very well.  This performance traveled towards it's end with a fine precision.  I missed something - Kamu's exuberance has never quite been equalled.  Vänskä and others seem pre-occupied with this symphony - the day will come when someone cracks it - but nothing shoddy about this performance in the meantime.

I'm minded at the moment to think that Symphony No 4 is Sibelius' finest symphony and one of the most telling works to emerge in the first half of the last century.  It haunts me: fragments recurring as earworms beyond their material - its all about their sense of place like Hardy's Whitewashed Wall.  I think that we are just starting to come to terms with its construction.  As listeners we have many interpretations of note from which to choose: I will audition Vänskä's latest recording very soon.  Storgårds is magnificently disconnected in this work in the first two movements and whilst the last movement doesn't quite have the grotesque isolation of some readings, his third movements moves ever-so carefully through the various fragments as they combine and build to a hymn of the deepest powerful departure.  At every turn the orchestra follows the conductor into a mode where music just dissolves - superbly indistinct: delaying and confusing our expectation. His reading and that performance had a distinct quality of the "other".  The security of this score is built on these effects of unanimous diminution.  The reading was greeted in suitable silence - it was less tragic and more lost.

Symphony No 5 is becoming nowadays much more of a companion piece to the Fourth, than a glorious peak in that 4-5-6 triptych.  The ferocious glory world of Karajan's 1950s and 60s readings is giving way nowadays to more ambiguity: rugged glorious nature giving way to complex humanity staring nature in the face.  The sense of the symphony is now wonder at the famous theme-inspiring swans but coupled with concern about mortality and modernity. Storgårds has all this in his sights in a first movement that emerges out of the haze into that fabulous Allegro.  The BBCPO were very precise in the building scherzo - Storgårds unleashed strings earlier than brass - I'm grateful for the new insights that provides but not so sure it's the best way when one has the BBCPO brass at one's disposal - they don't do "guarded": they are subtle but they sounded underpowered here.

The central movement's variations came off well - full of felicities and more ominous depth than I've heard elsewhere. The attaca into the final movement is always to be welcomed - conductors don't do this enough (even when the harmonic and melodic signals are all there). Storgårds made great progress to the swan hymn - it sounded glorious but he lost me in the symphony's conclusion. Brass were not just too muted than I'd like, there was no attack from them into the harmonic tumult. This symphony's heart is a vulnerable thing and in the best readings the ascent of the transformations which get us to the final bars take us perilously close to a darker world.  I remember the hit of realisation when I finally fell under the spell of it - it was glacial in it's majesty but forever in motion.  So Stogard's efforts to hold it all back for the climax miss the point - for me at least.  It was played very well.

I was astonished by his reading of the Sixth symphony - I listened to it four or five times in the week it was available.  I kept searching for something in it.  I have never heard this symphony's "greatness" to be honest, but I think Stogards pulls off a great trick to reveal something I hadn't considered.  He manages to turn the slick, jolly, pastoral Sixth into something of a dark fairground: in the story of the last four symphonies becomes all about facade of a happy life.  It somehow skates over the depths that the siblings plumb and yet has a hole where it should have a heart.  It is exquisitely made, beautiful, joyful and sunny and it's all something of a hollow shell.  I struggle to point to moments where the artifice drops and exposes it's facile nature: it is not a cynical exercise - but for me it's life is empty.  There's Storgard's magic at work - it seems so convincing.  Now I see it in a different light and can view some of it's glories as fashioned through gritted teeth by the composer. I'm grateful to this conductor for giving me a clue about this work.

Final work in the final concert was a simply stunning account of Symphony No 7.  Again with brass held back a little but this time it seemed to be more an artefact of the recording.  It owed nothing to Mena's reading at last year's proms - which I wrote about here and in comparison sped along. I enjoyed  in Mena's relish of the dark harmonies but I didn't think it an ideal work for him.  Storgards is a deal more Nordic and steely and found more time between the episodes of tumult.  I found the cut and thrust very rewarding and more successful than other versions I've heard in the same vein.

The Manchester audiences were enthusiastic and rightly so - whatever else their resident BBC orchestra once again excelled and my obsessive desire to hear their brass at full tilt aside, the playing was very precise and clean and sensitive.  The principles in the BBC Philharmonic wind section, like all the best wind sections, bring character to the fore sometimes but only when it serves the music.  They are fantastic and probably I've enjoyed their playing more this year than ever before.   I look forward to hearing Storgårds in the flesh before too long, on the evidence of this cycle he knows what he wants and gets in from the orchestra. 


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