Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sibelius' "Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82"

Written over a span of five years, No. 5 Symphony, Sibelius knew, was going to be something very special. Musical themes were jotted down, revised, moved around, discarded, developed as Sibelius sought the rigorous logic he considered the highest attribute of a perfect composition. If he heard the start of the symphony as a door opened by God to the mountain-climber, he thought of the symphony's development as a river, the many tributaries joining up to swell the river and rush it towards the sea. While the horns in the symphony speak of the venerable European tradition of the hunt, the bell-like motif imitate the 16 swans Sibelius saw flying in the sky one day, and took for a sign from God.

All this I learned from Gerard McBurney's presentation at an Inside the Music event, with the New York Philharmonic. And of the symphony's sublime moment--the six widely separated chords that conclude the work--they derive their power from the fact that we hear the inaudible bell-beat of the wings between the chords. Unheard music is sweeter.

Though interesting in some ways, the one-hour presentation, spliced with orchestral illustration, was too meandering and long. The tone was also gratingly effusive. The accompanying slides showed not only Sibelius' home and manuscripts, but also far too many pictures of swans. One film clip showed two swans coming together to form, with their necks, the visual cliche of a heart. The assumption seemed to be that the audience needed distraction from boredom.

The playing, led by David Zinman, who replaced Esa-Pekka Salonen, sounded to my untrained ears under-rehearsed. It was not as sharp as I had heard the Philharmonic on past occasions. The music lacked the inevitability that Sibelius sought. TCH thought that some passages were just not very interesting, and he cited the long bassoon solo as an example. I found it hard to listen to the performance without hearing the recording I own. I kept hearing an aural memory instead of the audible present.

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