September 11, 2015
The Best Piece
By my count, I’ve played on a couple of dozen Minnesota Orchestra recordings in the 15-plus years I’ve been employed here, and there are more than a few CDs in that stack that I’m quite proud to have been a part of. But it’s no hyperbole to say that I had been waiting my entire career to sit down and make the CD that we recorded in the spring of 2011.
That disc, released by the BIS label in 2012 and nominated for a Grammy later that year, included Sibelius’s Second Symphony, probably his most popular multi-movement work. And of course, recording any Sibelius with Osmo is a virtual guarantee that the world will pay attention to the results. But for me, the highlight of the recording session was the chance to lay down a memorable rendition of the mighty Finn’s Fifth Symphony. The Fifth is not just my favorite Sibelius work, not just my favorite symphony – it’s my favorite music, period. I love it more than the Mendelssohn Octet, more than Leonard Cohen’s best songs or the Indigo Girls’ tightest harmonies, more than Bach fugues or Brahms symphonies. In my opinion, separating out any peripheral issues like how groundbreaking or influential a work of art is or isn’t, Sibelius 5 is purely and simply the best music ever written.
There are a lot of reasons I believe this, but most of them come down to perfection of pacing, which also means that Sibelius 5 only becomes the best music ever written with the right performance. I was a fairly late convert to Sibelius, because most of the recordings of his music that I heard as a kid were heavy, ponderous things (listen below) presided over by ultra-serious conductors who liked to stretch every phrase to its maximum possible length, as if to convey, through slowness, that this was Important Art. Then, as now, that approach to music did almost nothing for me, and I just assumed that I wasn’t a big Sibelius fan.
That changed one night in 1996, when I made the 45-minute trek from my little college town to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play Sibelius’ Second at Severance Hall. (I think the conductor was Jukka-Pekka Saraste, but I’m not even a little bit certain of that.) It was a revelation: played correctly by a really great string section (Cleveland has one of the very best in the world), the opening swells of that symphony set a mood that wraps around you like a hug, and propels you forward into Sibelius’s universe of murmuring rhythmic pulses and explosive brass flourishes. I was an instant convert.
I discovered the Fifth a couple of years later, and knew instantly that I had found my symphony. From the opening horn call (which somehow manages to sound exactly like a sunrise), to the halting, nervous chattering that follows in the strings, to the propulsive brass arpeggios that herald the opening of the scherzo, everything is paced to extract the maximum emotional response from the audience.
The first movement ends with an accelerando that lasts for about five minutes, builds to a frenzied climax, and then slams to a halt with almost no warning.
If you pace it just right, the audience will sometimes gasp audibly as the final chord rips past them. Our audiences at Orchestra Hall that spring when we made our recording not only gasped, some of them jumped in their seats, and there was an audible moment of discombobulation bouncing around the still-electric room, during which I watched a few people clearly going through the following mental progression in a matter of seconds:
Okay, that was...
...I mean, what just happened?!...
Hey, I should applaud!!
...no, wait! Maybe I shouldn’t!
You could practically see these people’s heart rates being yanked up and down, which is a pretty impressive thing for a piece of music to do. It requires a tremendous amount of technical setup for a composer to place an audience so squarely in the palm of his hand that a quick right turn into a tonic chord can be enough to cause a physical jolt. And that’s just the first movement!
The end of the finale of the 5th is every bit as impressive, and even more daring on Sibelius’s part. Like the first movement, the finale builds slowly, progressing organically to what is clearly going to be another shattering climax. But satisfying our basest desire for simple resolution isn’t what Sibelius has in mind. Instead, he preps us for full-on emotional catharsis, and then provides that release not through excess, but through cavernous, pregnant silence.
Call it the Anti-Tchaikovsky approach. Nothing against Tchaikovsky (though, in truth, I have plenty against him), but in his symphonies, he mostly specializes in sending waves of consonant sound crashing over the audience, and then providing exactly the final, sugar-bomb catharsis he knows you’re craving. Sibelius, by contrast, takes his time, builds the sound in layers, brings us to the edge of the cliff, and then sweeps away, leaving us standing on its edge, filled with the thrill of it all but also with the profound emptiness of eternity.
This immensity and appeal to the furthest reaches of human contemplation were no accident. As he was beginning to compose the Fifth, in 1914, Sibelius wrote in his notebook that, while the details of the piece were not yet clear to him, he already knew that he was embarking on a monumental journey. Never one to mince words, he described his hoped-for outcome this way: “God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”*
I don’t know about God’s orchestra, or what they like to play. But I know that I’ve never experienced a sense of musical power like the one I feel when I’m a part of a performance of Sibelius 5. It’s perfect, perfect music. I honestly believe that.
*(citation: Michael Steinberg. The Symphony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.)
Addendum: In addition to our recording of Sibelius’s 5th (and 2nd) symphonies, which you can purchase here, Osmo also recorded what is arguably the definitive version of the 5th with Sinfonia Lahti back in the 1990s, also for BIS. As proud as I am to have been a part of our version, the Lahti recording is the gold standard, and you should go get it, now.
Originally published June 2011. Revised September 2015.