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October 12, 2009 | by  | in Music |
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NZSO Sibelius Festival

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Jean Sibelius was a revolutionary, not only in standing as a voice for the Finnish people themselves, but also of musical perpetuity. He stands between late romanticism and the true modern style, not unlike Beethoven an era before. With the NZSO being led by the Finnish duo of Pietari Inkinen, Music Director and Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen, it prompted such an opportunity to perform a monumental and interesting scope of the composer’s works. Both were educated at the Sibelius Academy of Helsinki, and with his music their very own it was a programme performed not more authentically as perhaps the composer may have himself. What was played were the seven of Sibelius’ symphonies, alongside his Violin Concerto, Finlandia, and Tapiola. The inception of such a performance is epic in itself, but to hear it was completely beyond that again. It was an enlightening exposition of self which cannot be represented quite particularly through other artistic terms.

Although I am compelled to provide a discourse of the music and its history, such a scope of opera can only be appreciated when heard for oneself. What I can say, however, is what hearing a chronology of a person’s life tells about those who provided impetus during the course of such. Symphony No. 1 in E-minor shows a great deal of the influence of the great Russian composer, Tchaikovsky. A solo clarinet opens to symphony, as it so often among his music. Though perhaps the true extent of Tchaikovsky’s influence is most explicitly seen in this symphony with an homage to his sixth symphony within the first theme of the Andante (ma non troppo lento). Symphony No. 2 in D-major brings a dissimilar aesthetic to the first, and shows Sibelius wallowing among the music of the romantics. Notwithstanding, it is of incredible structure, bound by the same melodic relationships which can be heard among any baroque concerto. The performance reached not fewer than seven ovations; truly one of the finest interpretations of the concert series.

The work that I most anticipated though was the Violin Concerto in D-minor. Sadly, I was met with consternation. Vesa-Matti Leppänen played the solo part with a slight sense of inhibition. It was this which turned what is a cornerstone of the violin repertoire into a performance that I would say myself to be not as grand as the written score suggests. Nevertheless, it is a work that has become incomparable to anything like it; not in just its technical prowess but in its wild and tempestuous expression. It features the subtle watermark of Sibelius, the tritone or that described as ‘diabolus in musica’; the most dissonant interval in western music. It too features, if one is to listen carefully, three chords from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Ciaccona, of BWV 1004, one of which harbours a tritone itself. In contrast to the gloomy tale that the concerto tells, Finlandia is one which speaks of the other side of the Finns. It is an anthem of Finland’s national identity, and Sibelius’ most recognised work. The famous hymn theme of Finlandia even prompted Leopold Stokowski to suggest that it serve as the anthem of the world. However it may be, the piece is perhaps something for the Finnish people to hold on to in identifying themselves as distinct from those powers who tried to oppress them.

Though the work that Sibelius felt most deeply for himself was his Symphony No. 5 in E-flat-major. Coming after the poor reception of his peculiar fourth symphony, it speaks of a new light in himself and what is his most beautiful symphony. It opens with a romantic brass melody, but the chromatic bowed tremolo soon voiced its modernity. Out of a solid rhythm emerges suddenly a powerful contrast of the sonic density as the first movement so quickly falls to silence. It was not just one of the many times that the symphony exhibited such crisp moments of nothing; it was as though the music extended into the static air that sat between movements. The final six chords came with a bar in between one another, making the most profound closing statements of any work.

Symphony No. 4 in A-minor stood apart, however, provoking an entirely different perspective on the composer’s music. The vivid points of analogy among the symphony’s style expressed many sources. The ‘tonal compression’ seen of Telemann, the alla breve of Bach, thematic metamorphosis like of Vivaldi, intriguing counterpoint, and in the end the symphony faded like none other than the sixth symphony of Tchaikovsky. It lacked not, however, any distinction of the composer’s style. In fact, it is probably the most exposing of all his works; that is to mean a pure image of his musical ideals. As for those other works I have unfortunately failed to comment upon, they should not be ignored. It is beyond the genius of Sibelius that such magna opera could be spoken for at once. That too goes for Pietari Inkinen’s passion for the music, perhaps seen not since Sir Thomas Beecham. It is with the same spirit of revolution and artistic momentum of Sibelius that has brought such performances to come about.

16–19 September
Pietari Inkinen: Music Director
Vesa-Matti Lappänen: Violin, Concertmaster
Symphonies 1 – 7
Violin Concerto
Finlandia
Tapiola

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