JWR Articles: Book - Sibelius: The Orchestral Works (Author: David Hurwitz) - July 3, 2007

Sibelius: The Orchestral Works

An Owner's Manual

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188 pages

ISBN-10: 1-5467-149-9
Double assist into the world of Sibelius

David Hurwitz’s overview into the craft of Finland’s most accomplished composer (so far) and detailed guide to his orchestral repertoire is a fascinating study of both the man and the music. The pair of companion CDs (once they have been wrestled out of their sleeve) are most welcome—particularly CD 2, which contains 13 tracks from lesser-known colleagues and contemporaries. A series of charts is a valuable resource for those interested in the details of Sibelius’ orchestration.

In his informative prose Hurwitz both delights (“in the final analysis, the discerning ear must judge”), enrages (“Brahms was essentially a throwback to an earlier era …”) and is perhaps one edit away from clean copy (although it could be argued that Beethoven’s melodies were filled with “principle”). The frequent notion that, for example, the second movement of the Kullervo Symphony (rightly counted into the total of nine rather than the music-history class seven) “is … music that could have been written by no other composer” seems a tad trite when surrounded by so much informative and relevant detail.

The writer’s great challenge is to try and bring the novice into the cool, pensive insights and unabashed glory of the master musician. Having not heard Symphony No. 7 in over a decade, I sat down with the CD and Hurwitz’s detailed description, listening with new ears and eyes.

The major sections or musical events (e.g., Introduction, Theme, Development 1, et cetera) are described in words and soundposts for those playing back the CD on a machine that displays time code. But, like most other things relating to technology, there was a five-second difference on my equipment making me wonder if the splendid trombonist (strongly heroic declamation of the theme without overstating—kudos to the sound engineer as well for the fine balance) “scheduled” for 14:11 had missed his cue.

Hurwitz describes Development 1 as a “breakdown” and Development 2 as a “buildup.” This over-editorializing doesn’t leave the listeners much room to form their own opinions; better to explain the notion of developments being a “working out” of the ideas previously heard. Similarly, after the “menacing climax” (18:02), we wait in vain for the timpani, horns and strings to “scream in protest.” Although the violins draw a protest of their own when they cannot uniformly get into the string for the “passionate recitative.” Hurwitz would do well to provide more facts and fewer opinions in future volumes of this problematic but, potentially, audience-building series.

The Helsinki Philharmonic, guided by Leif Segerstam—after some early-going ensemble problems—acquits themselves well with their light-reeded clarinets and bassoons providing tonal contrast to the marvellously arid touch of the tympani when in melodic mode. They compare favourably to Lorin Maazel’s 1968 set (but just the seven numbered works) except for the fabulously resonate/lean string tone of the fabled Vienna Philharmonic.

CD 2 – Selected Quick Takes

Erkki Melartin: Pastorale
Gently lilting rhythm provides the background for woodwind tunes, violin solo and a splash of harp. Apparently inspired by Rembrandt’s The Adoration of the Shepherds, Melartin clearly needs visual assistance to sustain his craft, but would have been a busy composer had he lived and toiled for the silver screen in Hollywood.

Aarre Merikanto: Dance Scene from Juha; Leevi Madetoja: Dance Scene from JuhaAarre Merikanto
In the dance-scene sweepstakes (from two versions of Juha—both with the same libretto by Aino Ackté) Merikanto wins feet down. His rough-and-raucous solo violin writing (the perfect match for the consonant-rich language when the chorus joins the fray), energizing low-register tune and saucy piccolo keep the ear engaged in a manner that Bartók would have approved. Less successful is the more “sailor dance,” lighter approach from his colleague (and a cut/edit on the CD to the chorus that doesn’t work). The flavour of Carmina Burana(especially in the choral and vocal writing) is never far away.

Väinö Raitio: Maidens on the Headlands
French impressionism oozes to the surface in nearly every bar of this tone poem. At its root is the Finnish folk song “Church Bells of Valamo,” which betrays an understandable influence from Russia with more than a nod towards the “Song of the Volga Boatman” slipped into the interval mix. But by journey’s end—despite some fine violin and cello solo interventions—the appetite has been so whetted that only an immediate serving of Ravel’s complete Daphnis and Chloe can satisfy the craving.

Uuno Klami: The Adventures of Lemminkäinen on the Island of Saari
Here’s a jolly treatise on how to write loud and large for orchestra. Following a dark and brooding, near-monotonous opening and some lovely divided cello writing that could have morphed into an essay on William Tell, the homage à Stravinsky shifts into gear with col legno now (and snaps to come), a recycled tuba motif and a valiant trumpet air that leaves colour, if not ingenuity, in great supply. Then, in what can only foreshadow John Williams’ wholesale pillaging of orchestrators past, the Superman section is a spectacular hoot. And, if simultaneous multi-metre had found its way to the exit march, none other than Charles Ives would blush with pride. Much can be learned here.

Magnus Lindberg: Chorale
Like a breath of fresh and oh-so-contemporary air (born in 1958, Lindberg is the youngest of the featured composers), the CD concludes with a magnificent setting of Eis Ist Genug (“It Is Enough”). Heavily clustered and harmonically dense (save and except for a few moments of major sunshine), the music brings us the best of tonal/melodic heritage and dissonance with mighty purpose. It stands head-and-shoulders above its companion pieces. Finally, a composer that celebrates the past but can see and hear his way clear to a future of his own making—tonal or not. JWR

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Author - David Hurwitz
Dance Scene from Juha - Aarre Merikanto
Dance Scene from Juha - Leevi Madetoja
Symphony No. 7 - Jean Sibelius
Pastorale - Erkki Melartin
Maidens on the Headlands - Väinö Raitio
The Adventures of Lemminkäinen on the Island of Saari - Uuno Klami
Chorale - Magnus Lindberg
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