Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901-02)

Lorin Maazel conducted the Sibelius this week. I heard it on Wednesday, and had one of those musical experiences in which everything made sense. Sitting with TCH in the second row of the orchestra, I could see the involvement in every string player's face. No sidelong smirk or knowing look. Just immersion in the anguished grandeur of the music. The second movement was particularly absorbing. The third moved into the fourth without a pause. In the fourth, the contrasting themes became one, and sounded as if they were supposed to be one all along, but was unfortunately separated by history, by time. 

From the program note:

When Rimsky-Korsakov remarked of Sibelius's Second Symphony, "Well, I suppose that's possible, too," he may have been referring to the restless sense of duality that seems to govern this score. The pastoral sunshine that bathes the opening of the first movement is soon swept away by icy winds; rather the opposite happens in the third movement, where what one might take as a snow flurry yields to a shepherd's call on the oboe. Bucolic sections are interrupted by passages that evoke grave concern or by terribly outbursts; these, in turn, are confronted by suggestions of proud defiance and resolute confidence.

Or perhaps Rimsky-Korsakov was thinking of Sibelius's distinctive orchestration. Some listeners find it thick and claustrophobic, but Sibelius was very particular about its details and they combine to create his own musical fingerprint. Consider his very typical use of the massed brass section, which often erupts into snarling crescendos (as it does prominently in the second movement). A report survives of a rehearsal of the Second Symphony conducted by Robert Kajanus, at which only two of the three trumpets were in attendance, the third having come down with the flu. Sibelius stayed only briefly and then interrupted the rehearsal to take his leave, explaining to Kajanus, "I can only hear the trumpet which isn't there and I can't stand it any longer."

The symphony was preceded by Lorin Maazel's own compositions, Monaco Fanfares, Op. 8 (1986), and Farewells: Symphonic Movement, Op. 14 (1998-99). The first was brisk as the the military fanfares played every day at the changing of the guard at the prince's palace in Monte Carlo. The second was apocalyptic in mood, with machine-like figures marching and clashing in a climax that leaves only "the dust of total destruction" (Maazel). The music was overly descriptive, I thought.

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