Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5 Pohjola's Daughter

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5 Pohjola's Daughter

Santtu-Matias Rouvali grew up with Sibelius. Not literally, of course, since the Finnish conductor was born 120 years after his famed compatriot. But the composer’s music formed part of the soundtrack to his childhood and was never far from his professional training at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. He began recording the seven Sibelius symphonies and assorted tone poems soon after his appointment as chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (GSO) in 2017. Their cycle, after a pandemic-enforced break, continues with the release of its third volume, a compelling coupling of the Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5 with Pohjola’s Daughter. “I was born in Lahti, Finland, and my parents played in the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, which became famous for its revelatory performances of Sibelius under the conductor Osmo Vänskä,” Rouvali recalls. “I’ve heard the Sibelius symphonies since I was five years old, in concert and in rehearsal. Because of that, I don’t even think about interpretation. The music is as it comes, and people will follow me in the moment.” His Gothenburg players are clearly happy with the deal. They dig deep into the details of the two symphonies, extracting drama from their constantly shifting moods and multitude of themes, and conjure rich sounds in Pohjola’s Daughter. Neeme Järvi, the GSO’s longest-serving chief conductor, recorded two cycles of the Sibelius symphonies and tone poems with the orchestra, the first in the 1980s, its successor between 1992 and 2005. “He even did the pieces that nobody knows,” notes Rouvali. “But the GSO have always supported Scandinavian music, or let’s say Fennoscandian music in the case of Sibelius. They know exactly how to use the acoustics of their concert hall in these works. To be honest, this wooden hall [the Gothenburg Concert Hall], which was built in 1935, was made for a smaller orchestra; sometimes the sound on the stage is too big. But it supports a full string sound, and that’s the specialty of the Gothenburg Symphony.” The orchestra’s tonal richness registers from the opening of the Third Symphony and runs throughout the recording. Those new to Rouvali’s Sibelius will also be struck by other characteristics of his cycle: the rhythmic precision of the playing and clarity given to the composer’s part-writing among them. “As a Finnish conductor, you have to make a stand and record the Sibelius symphonies,” he notes with a smile. “And I’m super happy that it has been with the Gothenburg Symphony because they have such a big tradition with Sibelius, and they know his musical language well. Normally, people say in Sibelius that the rhythms are not so important. But I have a different approach. I try to dig into the rhythms that are there. So, it changes the character of each symphony a little bit. Sibelius said that he wanted the details of his music to swim in the sauce. I keep in mind that you need to have this messy Sibelius sound sometimes, but you should still bring out the rhythms.” Now, read on as Santtu-Matias Rouvali takes us through the three major Sibelius works on his recording. Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 “The opening, with its dugger, dugger, dum, dum, dummm—dum, dum, dugger, dugger, dum, dum, dummm rhythm at the beginning, always sounds to me better than it looks on the page. The music is completely about freshness and is full of clean sound. The movement is in C major, which is kind of very basic. And he leans heavily on the dominant and tonic of the key in the first melody. He really plays with simple thematic things, but the music still sounds very much ‘Sibelianic.’ That first theme goes with the horn melody that enters soon after, which is a basic fanfare. But then the section ends with a scale in C major that rises to where you wouldn’t expect it to go. It takes one more step, but that makes all the difference. Right at the end of the symphony, he resolves everything with a great C-major chord. But in the first movement, there are so many of these unexpected things. And that is what I call ‘Sibelianic.’” “I remember struggling to find the right tempo for the second movement, but I must say it’s the most beautiful music. Always when you think Sibelius sounds happy, you can imagine there’s a dark side, too. So, there’s something melancholic at the same time. It sounds so typically Finnish: even when you're happy, there’s always something going on that you're not happy about! And there’s always a messy part which nobody understands in Sibelius. That comes in the third and final movement of this symphony. He runs through all these crazy ideas and creates complete chaos. But then he suddenly comes to this broad melody in the violas and cellos. OK, he says, now I’m confident—now I know what to do.” “Sibelius composed Pohjola’s Daughter and completed the Third Symphony at Ainola, the house he had built by a lake in the country to the north of Helsinki. After a period of entertaining guests and overindulging, he stopped drinking for a while in 1907 and was sober when he wrote the Third Symphony. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a very clean symphony.” Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 “Sibelius finished the original version of his Fifth Symphony in 1916. He revised it twice after that. I conduct the last version of the score, from 1919. It’s what I’ve heard so many times since I was a child, so it’s the one I really know. Maybe someday I will do the first version, but let’s see. The piece is very tricky. It’s important, for instance, for the whole orchestra to understand the offbeat solo bassoon entries that appear around halfway through the first movement. People often don’t get the picture of how the rhythm goes here because it sounds like there are no downbeats, there are only offbeats. If you listen carefully, though, the strings are playing these incredibly fast notes, which are not clear to the human ear, but you should be able to sense the downbeat from them. It’s the same at the end of the third movement. It sounds like the chaos of the first movement, and then there’s a conclusion again. First, it sounds like a mess with these great emotions, but then everything lightens up and the mind clears. The mind becomes clearer and clearer until you get these six great chords at the end.” “The first recording of the Fifth Symphony was made by the London Symphony Orchestra in the early 1930s, conducted by Sibelius’ friend Robert Kajanus. Sibelius dedicated the Third Symphony to his friend, the composer and conductor Granville Bantock, who introduced many of his early works to British audiences. These two symphonies have several connections to Britain, where Sibelius had enormous success and such a big influence on composers.” Pohjola’s Daughter “This symphonic fantasy, written in 1906 while he was working on what eventually became his Third Symphony, is based on a story from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic. It’s about an ancient hero who visits Pohjola, the far North, which is home to beautiful maidens. These are like fairy-tale characters. So, what Sibelius does with the solo oboe melody with harp arpeggios sounds to me completely like movie music. You can imagine a movie where there’s a hero fighting with a dragon, and the prize for this is that he wins the Maiden of Pohjola. As a conductor, you need to know the basics of the Kalevala and why it’s so symbolic of the Finnish language. And, of course, you need to know the outline of the story of Pohjola’s Daughter. But beyond all of that, it’s about what Sibelius does with these fairy-tale images, the colors he gives to the orchestra, and how the music touches the listener.”

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