Friday, December 24, 2010

Sibelius - Symphonies 5 & 7

There's this idea that composers reflect the environments that surround them. Zemlinsky reflects the queasy, whipped cream-rich sickness of fin de si├Ęcle Vienna, Falla reflects the bright colours of the Mediterranean, and Sibelius reflects the cool purity of the snowy north.

Perhaps there's something in this, and perhaps it's just reductive, but it's been snowing here lately, and when I go out what I notice more than anything is the quiet. This must be partly because heavy snow is uncommon here and so when it does come things simply stop - roads, trains, industry, all fall silent (peculiarly, this break from life's monotony is usually portrayed as a bad thing). But the nights, too, are quieter than they were. Where before speech bounced off the pavement and scattered, now it hangs in front of your face, you hear it clear and close. Thoughts, too, stay with you, are undispersed. Missed chances, regrets, hope. Awful, it is, and beautiful.

And this has drawn me even closer to Sibelius' seventh symphony, a piece I was already virtually obsessed with. It begins with the simplest of gestures: a tap on the timpani and a scale, the notes of C major, one leading necessarily to the next, forward motion, overlapping figures as woodwinds slide over strings sliding over brass (everything overlaps here, including the tempi, four movements merging into one). It's all about the creation and release of tension - perhaps this is true of all fancy music to some extent, but here you really feel it moment-to-moment. That opening scale is interrupted by an unexpected chord which slowly, slowly resolves back towards C major, before taking another turn away from it... and so the piece goes on. One constant is a slow fanfare-like call (first heard on the trombone at 5:25 into the first track of the symphony on this recording) which recurs several times, always in C major.

Ultimately, it ends loudly, with slowly overlapping appoggiaturas - tension and release reduced to its simplest, and a satisfying reminder of that scale at the symphony's very beginning. But the most striking moment comes a few minutes earlier (at the beginning of the final track in this recording), when the strings are abandoned and left to swerve around each other and reconfigure space to make room for that horn call one last time. To me, this moment of coalescence is the climax of the piece, and the dynamic marking is mezzo forte. I don't know of another symphony where this is true. Pieces which fool you with false climaxes are common enough - the tension is increased again and again until the final outburst. But when the real high-point comes, it is almost always the loudest of all; here the real climax is not bigger, but stiller. All the tensions, the worry, the work, resolved for one moment of transcendent moderation.

As well as the seventh, this disc contains what is perhaps my favourite recording of the fifth symphony. Enough talk. Listen.