Spring Symphonies 59 - Sibelius: Symphony No 5

Here is a symphony which I think is scarcely understood though it is frequently analysed.  It is many things and as soon as you try to name it's qualities they slip from your grasp.  It is intimate and it is epic.  It is modern and yet not modern enough.  It is large and small and it is influential and yet unique.  No one as far as I can hear, comes near it and everyone gets it and then at other times doesn't.  It is highly dependent on who plays it, who conducts it and how it is recorded.  It may in fact be a chimera.  I don't know - but it is worth hearing.

Sibelius Fourth symphony was premiered in 1911 and as I wrote last year that I can find no comfort in it and I decided not to dissect the composer's state of mind when writing it but judge it purely as a consumer except to note that it was written in a dark time.  But we know how far that kind of authorial mindreading can get us.  With the Fifth we have a few extra musical allusions and testimony of the inspirations of the composer.  And we have two earlier versions from which to paw over.  We know the 1919 version best because is often played and recorded and in the 60s and 70s had the merit of being in the repertoire of both Karajan and Bernstein amongst many fine conductors. 

It's pretty safe to say the Prof James Hepokoski put the cat amongst the analytical pigeons when he suggested a radical rethink of the way this Op 82 was structured.  I recall reading it and finding it quite re-assuring but he did divided up in that alarming regimented way the music theorists like to and he talked a lot about rotations.  Once again the invaluable Cambridge Music Guide (1993) which Hepokoski wrote will give you the  deeper analysis.

I came to this because it seemed to me to be the way to get into Sibelius proper.  The Second symphony was something of a thrill but I knew it was not the real deal in terms of the tinctured music Sibelius was later to write.  So armed only with an impenetrable sleeve note I dived in here knowing that there was something about swans here.  It needn't detain us here - how many of us hear 16 swans circling over head anyway!

The music begins in a dark and ill-define place - the horn summons it to order in quick reaction with a call which seems to resonate throughout the work.  The woodwind follow and expand ideas against a dense but quiet harmonic backdrop.  These deep pedal chords sustained and telling from the backbone of this symphony's appeal to me.  When the first tutti breaks out it is like bells peeling in its pulse and pace and density.  Sibelius plays with time and texture and perception.  There is something deeply natural about this - like a wind rushing through a forest and making the clouds scud across the sky and making waves on a lake.  It is the unseen propulsion of this wind which fascinates.  Those familiar with Sibelius' tone poems will have picked up on his treatment of rhythm and harmony and spartan texture. I think it's worth noting that whilst mystery abounds in this movement it does not resolve into anything definitive and where it appears to do so, it is simply a deeper darker shadow of a thing rather than a thing itself.

Sibelius gave the orchestra much to work with and the conductor much to worry about.  Those who get it thrive.  Some of those who think they get it don't - and yet they miss by such narrow margins.  About 8 minutes in it starts to get itself together and we might expect some dwelling on a  coherent set of ideas.  Sibelius is having none of that.  The development is continuous.  At some point (and people argue about where) we slip into the Scherzo without a break.

For a long time I regarded what happens next as the most exciting music I knew.  The music simply accelerates (though not evenly) but with a febrile energy bursting from every bar.  The pulse is maintained at several levels and drops a gear every now and then to perpetuate the sense of acceleration.  It's stride becomes widely fast and it blasts into what might be described as orbit on a tutti which is incredibly ordered on the page but best describes in effect as orgasmic.  The climax once heard is never forgotten.  It is breath-taking, and powerful and abrupt.  And like a whirlwind in the desert comes out of nowhere. And it's very secure, immediate ending is another of the two faced natures of this work - for 13 or so minutes it is travelling and in it last moment it simply stops.  I still love the clockwork as it runs out of control across this span of seemingly two movements.  It reassures us with a more recognisable familiar idiom than the sparse Fourth and then has it behave as through every aspect of what a symphony should do was being pushed out of  control.

As if to emphasise that last point Sibelius calms the work with a  charming and serene set of variations in a Andante mosso, quasi allegretto middle movement.  We might have called it a slow movement had not so much of the first movement been tentative.  It is sparkling, distinctly Nordic and from a different place.  The form introduces certainty, the orchestration is traditional and the overall impression is positive and warm.  There's humour here too.  It feels slightly surreal given what has gone before - not that it's darkness was tragic - but we stand on firm ground here.  But throughout there are hints of what is to come - a rustling buzzing substrate and a grand closing statement.

The variations are sweet but aside from one passage, never rushed.  The finale begins with a buzzing, pulsing frenetic burst of energy - it too has seven league boots to get to it's point quickly but it is effectively interrupted by a horn call which brings us back to winds and forests and lakes and if associations are to be believed swans.  The horns repeat a call anchors this movement with a security we didn't have in the first.  It is worth dwelling on this in the symphonic sense.  The certainties of structure went out the window in the course of the 19th Century and by 1919 we had seen the symphony tested in many ways.  Where the Fourth ends in the degradation if not abjugation from musical norms, the Fifth is working in the opposite direction but completely outside the box.

The development of the material of this movement changes radically between the earlier and later versions of this symphony - Sibelius was inspired by something to concoct a musical fusion which is thrilling and telling and emotionally a watershed. In addition to the horn call we have a melody in the winds alongside the pulsing opening figure both of which will counter the horns.  Much is made of these melodies and to be sure you have to get them into your head.  But I think the greater glory of this work is the harmonic progress in it's last five minutes from a very quiet but quick passage which in the reverse of the scherzo goes down through the gears to take the speed off.  In doing so those huge pedal notes become the building blocks of an immense climax - especially when the winds pick up the horn call.  The motion in the strings retards the music further and in a greater surge the horn call now with trumpets in the lead now achieves something like orbit.  These great chords build until the tension becomes almost intolerable - take time to notice these - it is Sibelius' greatest gift.  It is not heavy in sonority only in consequence as the familiar ear begins to hear these inner workings.  Sibelius plays with textures: brass against bass at one point seems both heavier and lighter at the same time.  As the rest of the modest orchestra cut in, the richness of this passage builds to a breath taking density of harmonic consequences - it engulfs the listener like a bright warming sun. As it settles Sibelius plays his last trick - novel  when you hear it for the first time, much debated like it's structural consequential against the mountain range of harmonies we've just traverse.  He ends on six blank chords, well spaced and as terse as the end of the scherzo.  When you know the work it is hard to think of any other way it might end.  Now you no it, pay it no head.

This work for me is all about those last five minutes but they can't be heard properly without the preceding backdrop - like Bruckner's Fifth most of it is preparation.  It is a short and astonishing symphony in every aspect - it demands to be heard again and again until those last five minutes seem to shift like planets round a sun having started as the cogs in a pocket watch.

Here's Karajan in 1960 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyKfL4eaS7I


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