Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sibelius: Third Symphony

It's been a year and a half since I last listened to the music of Jean Sibelius. And if nothing else, I'm annoyed with myself for once again overlooking this often-overlooked composer.
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Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 3 in C major
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major

EMI Records, 1988
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Sibelius' Third Symphony represents a significant stylistic break from his First and Second Symphonies, both of which were typical examples of the so-called heroic-national style (Sibelius was a fierce Finnish nationalist during a period when Finland struggled under Russian control).

However, the Third Symphony, as my Essential Canon of Classical Music puts it, "entered into a different sphere of musical thought, using a radically condensed form totally devoid of the grand manner of his earlier music." Compared to Sibelius' Second Symphony, which I wrote about back in 2008, this work is simpler, more slimmed-down and--if I may say so--less pretentious. It avoids the overwrought schmaltz of Vaughan Williams (VW was a Sibelius contemporary), and yet it still features plenty of soaring and riveting passages. Like Mahler, but more concise.

Before we get to the listener notes, a quick item for listeners who would like to experience more works by Sibelius: I've provided links on Amazon here and a graphical link below to a highly-regarded box set of all of his complete symphonies (there are seven) as well as all of his tone poems, suites and incidental music.

Listener Notes for Sibelius' Third Symphony:
1) When you hear a french horn part as ripping as the one at 0:59 in the first movement, you know you're going to be in for a good symphony (listen for a reprise of the part at the 6:46 mark).

2) Listen to the parts played by the cello section from 4:45 to 5:45 in the first movement (also reprised at 7:34). There's a lot of tension here, as well as carpal-tunnel syndrome.

3) Do the last two chords of the first movement sound to you like the "ahhhh-mennnn" that comes at the end of a church hymn?

4) My favorite parts of the second movement are the wonderful syncopated bass viol plucks at the 1:23-1:33 mark and again at the 3:16-3:26 mark.

5) This symphony seems to lose direction a bit in the third and fourth minutes of the third movement. Not what you'd expect in a tightly composed, "slimmed-down" symphony. But this is a minor misdirection in an otherwise gripping work.

6) Finally, there are very few obvious mistakes in this performance, but two unfortunate ones arrive when the woodwinds play two overly feverish and shrill trills in the very last minute of the final movement. I'll give them an "E" for enthusiasm.




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