SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (Iceland Symphony Orchestra/ Petri Sakari) (Naxos: 8.554377)
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Symphony No. 4 in Aminor, Op. 63
Symphony No. 5 in Eflat major, Op. 82
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of adoctor, in a small town in the south of Finland, the language and culture ofhis family being Swedish. It was at school that he was to learn Finnish andacquire his first interest in the early legends of a country that had become anautonomous grand-duchy under the Tsar of Russia, after the defeat of CharlesXII of Sweden. Throughout the later nineteenth century there were divisionsbetween the Swedish-speaking upper classes and the Finnish-speaking people, thecause of the latter embraced by influential nationalists and accentuated by therepressive measures introduced by Tsar Nicholas II, before the revolution of1905. In this society Sibelius was deeply influenced by his association withthe family of General Jarnefelt, whose daughter Aino became his wife.
Nevertheless linguistically Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which heexpressed himself more fluently than he could in Finnish.
The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although notdeveloped early enough to suggest music as a profession until he had entereduniversity in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be aviolinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this directionwas outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Berlinand with Goldmark and, more effectively, Robert Fuchs in Vienna.
In Finland once more, Sibeliuswon almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, basedon an episode from the Finnish epic Kalevala. There followedcompositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputationin Helsinki, including the incidental music to the patriotic student pageant Karelia,En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite. During this period Sibeliussupported himself and his wife by teaching, as well as by composition and theperformance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earn enough,given, as he was, to bouts of extravagance, continuing from his days as astudent. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University ofHelsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour of RobertKajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professionalorchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment Sibelius wasawarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into apension for life. The sum involved was never sufficient to meet his gift forimprovidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father, who at his death in 1868 hadleft his family in some difficulty.
Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fameincreasing at home and abroad. The success of Symphony No. 1of 1898 wasfollowed by the still more successful Finlandia. Busoni had tried toarrange for the publication of his music by Belyayev, patron of the laternineteenth-century Russian nationalist composers, on the excuse that the Finnswere, in a sense, Russians, or at least citizens of a Russian grand-duchy. Thiscame to nothing, but subsequent publication by Breitkopf and Hartel ensured awider public abroad than provincial Finland itself could ever offer. SymphonyNo. 2 in 1902 won unprecedented success in Helsinki. This was followed bythe Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 3, and after an illness that put anend for the moment to his indulgence in alcohol and tobacco, Symphony No.
4, with travel to the major musical centres of Europe and international honour.
Symphony No. 5 was written during the war, after which Sibelius wroteonly four works of any substance, Symphony No. 6 in 1923 and, in thefollowing year, Symphony No. 7, incidental music to Shakespeare's TheTempest and, in 1926, the symphonic poem Tapiola. An eighth symphonywas completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, remaining isolated from and largelyantipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain andAmerica remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to theexcessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed torecapture the earlier position he had enjoyed before the war of 1914 inGermany, France and Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.
In 1908 Sibelius underwent successful treatment in Berlin for a throattumour. A more fortunate result of his illness was, for the moment, enforcedabstention from his habits of drinking and cigar-smoking. There were, however,money difficulties, as his debts accumulated. His change of publishers fromBreitkopf and Hartel to Lienau seemed to promise immediate aid, but the newcontract made heavy demands on him that he was unable to meet. In 1909 hereturned to Breitkopf and it was in October of the same year that he began tosketch his Symphony No. 4 in A minor. Progress was relatively slow andinterrupted by other commissions, but the work was eventually completed at thebeginning of April 1911, in time for a first puzzling performance in Helsinki.
The symphony represents a change of mood from its immediate predecessor, itsoriginal inspiration the mountains of North Karelia, which he had visited inthe autumn of 1909 with his brother-in-law Eero Jarnefelt, to whom the symphonyis dedicated. Sibelius seems at first to have envisaged a symphonic poem,although the finished work is in no sense programmatic or pictorial in content.
The first movement, originally conceived as La Montagne, a suggestionlater repudiated, opens with a motif 'as harsh as Fate', as Sibelius said. Fromthis the principal theme emerges with a solo cello, to continue its developmentin canon, before the brass affirm a shift of key to F sharp major. The darkmood of the introductory movement is lightened by a passing shaft of sunlight, beforethe conclusion. The following Allegro molto vivace seems to promisecontrast, but a more ominous atmosphere soon starts to prevail, particularly inthe trio section of this scherzo, in which the return of thefirst section is very much shortened. The slow movement, at one time with thetitle 'Thoughts of a Wayfarer', is in three sections, the longest at its heart,the whole mysterious and other-worldly, from the opening flutes to the gradualemergence of the principal theme. The final rondo, with its inspired useof a solo cello and a colourful glockenspiel, includes in its development musicoriginally intended for an unfinished setting of Edgar Allan Poe's poem TheRaven. By the end of the movement, however, a feeling of bleak desolationhas returned, concluding a work that Sibelius himself described as 'apsychological symphony'.
Sibelius had contemplated a Fifth Symphony as early as 1912. Thefirst version, written largely in 1915, had been given its first performance inDecember of that year in a celebration of the composer's fiftieth birthday. Asecond version, combining the first and second movements into one and extendingthe finale to make a balancing second half to the work, was first heardin 1916, but still failed to satisfy Sibelius. The final revision was delayedby the aftermath of the revolution in Russia and the resulting civil war inFinland but completed in 1919. The first movement opens with the horns inexpansive mood, followed by the woodwind in thirds, the entry of the stringsdelayed. The dramatic tension of tremolo strings leads to a secondsubject. The centre of the movement takes the place of a scherzo, with asolo trumpe