Nobility, Power, Sheen: Vänskä And Minnesota Cycle Through Sibelius

Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (Photo by Courtney Perry)

Sibelius: The Seven Symphonies and Kullervo, Op. 7. Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano; Tommi Hakala, baritone; YL Male Voice Choir; Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS 2506 SACD (4 CDs).

DIGITAL REVIEW – The music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) continues to speak with the authority of an individual voice, a persistent and musically informed vision of his intimate yet national character. His youthful Kullervo (1891) and his seven symphonies, composed 1891-1924, extend the Romantic tradition in symphonic expression and structure into a striking and simultaneously compelling search for unity in 20th-century terms.

Osmo Vänskä addressed the Sibelius cycle in the 1990s with the Lahti Symphony, also issued by the BIS label. In this new edition, which features the Minnesota Orchestra and adds Kullervo, each of the four discs is accompanied by its respective booklet from the original album that was released individually. This latest compendium is a solid, conscientious traversal of the Sibelius symphonic cycle.

So far as the Kullervo interpretation is concerned, Vänskä’s reading has its idiosyncrasies as well as inherent weaknesses, the latter attributable to his vocalists. Sibelius had been deeply moved through his studies in Berlin and Vienna of the Finnish national epic Kalevala, and he embarked in 1891 on a five-movement score — with soloists in the third movement — that would capture, with Brucknerian girth, the tragic grandeur of Kullervo and his misadventures. The recording derives from a public concert given in February 2016.

Vänskä takes the opening introduction rather briskly, and its confident swagger perhaps belies the epic tragedy that lies in wait. More askew, tempo-wise, the second movement, “Kullervo’s Youth,” plods at an inordinately slow pace. Here, we find some justification in the response by conductor Robert Kajanus that the music of Kullervo might test the concentration and understanding of the general public beyond its means.

The core of the symphony, “Kullervo and his Sister,” proves alert and expansive in the chorus and orchestra, much in the manner of a scenic cantata. But the performance sags under the inefficient weight of the two vocalists: Mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi strikes me as over-ripe, too Wagnerian in her part, while baritone Tommi Hakala lacks vocal focus, his intonation unsteady, his voice rather parched. The final two movements redeem the rendition, rife with energy and conviction, realizing a work incredibly provocative in its style, with possible implications for Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. The sheer abundance of orchestral colors testifies to a major talent on the verge of finding his voice in music, combining his personal drive with a fine sense of national identity.

The distance in musical maturity between Kullervo and Symphony No. 1 (1899) deserves its measure of achievement by the degree of economy Sibelius exerts upon his forces. Vänskä takes a leisurely pace with the introduction, in which clarinetist Burt Hara intones the organic main theme. The dynamic level, disarmingly soft, can soon erupt into spasmodic moments of broad energy that urge the Allegro energico forward, recalling the composer’s original rubric for the movement, that “a cold, cold wind is blowing from the sea.” A long pedal point in E-flat opens the second movement, Andante, whose debts to Tchaikovsky do not prevent its possessing its own bucolic allure. Vänskä and the Minnesota players soon usher in a storm in C minor that has the potent energy I enjoy as well from the classic rendition from Thomas Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic.

For the most-popular Second Symphony in D major (1902), the rather striking colors in Vänskä’s approach seem to me more personal and intimate than, say, the heroic panorama in Serge Koussevitzky’s epic Boston Symphony document from 1950. Vänskä’s second movement, for my taste, moves too slowly, and the tenor of the dynamics is too light. Vänskä does draw many lovely colors from the Andante, set in the Aeolian form of A.

Whatever pastoral impulses the music conveys find themselves disrupted by grand and often disturbed gestures. The broad and manic Vivacissimo third movement nods to the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, even repeating the trio. The Minnesota strings and tympani move with virtuoso quickness and execute a fine segue to the grand Finale. Allegro moderato, which provides a slick transition to the three-note motto that opened the work, here ready for epic, triumphant transformation. Even with resounding tympani, Vänskä’s realization pays homage to the Northern landscape more than to a personal rapture. I do recall fondly my first encounter with this music: a concert performance at the recently opened Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic, Thomas Schippers conducting.

In several respects, my fondness for the three-movement Symphony No. 3 in C (1904-1907) has surpassed my attraction to the first two symphonies, especially after my initiation into this radical shift in the Sibelius style to a leaner, more Classical ethos, as realized by the likes of Kirill Kondrashin and John Barbirolli. Actually, Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic caught an ironic tone in this restrained, folkish music, aligning it with the spirit of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Curiously, Koussevitzky gave the Third its U.S. premiere in Boston in 1927 but never recorded the work; neither did Herbert von Karajan, otherwise an advocate of the Sibelius symphony cycle.

Vänskä’s approach to this elusive work proves sympathetic, even tender, especially in his treatment of the gently martial middle movement, Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto, a theme and variations in rondo form that tests the fluent transparency of the Minnesota woodwinds’ thirds into an obsessive, hymnal motive marked, impressively enough, Allegro con energia. Vänskä delivers a performance of persuasive urgency, again demanding that we consider this often-neglected work in a more serious light.

It was a time of personal crisis in 1910 that helped to foment the A Minor Symphony No. 4. A cancerous tumor’s removal from the composer’s throat induced him to shun cigars and alcohol, and the resultant withdrawal effects punished him. “Intimations of mortality” permeate the work and instill a kind of exotically bleak color that Benjamin Britten and Leopold Stokowski found beguiling.

If Sibelius’ desire for affirmation and victory infuses the Fifth Symphony in E-flat Major (1915-1919), that heroic vitality proved a hard-won resolution. With his creative concentration hampered by physical illness and the global travails of World War I, Sibelius three times had to address this symphony anew, and only reluctantly did he release his “definitive” version. The first movement, Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato, has always struck me as an opening horn motif that announces a progressive arch, a graduated and slowly energized splicing of introduction (a sonata-form with double exposition) and scherzo marked by stretto figures. Sibelius wrote, “My heart sings, full of sadness — the shadows lengthen.” None has realized this powerful procession more greatly than Sergiu Celibidache’s recording leading the Swedish Radio Symphony, but there have been many fine incarnations, from Koussevitzky, Bernstein, Colin Davis, and, here, from Vänskä. Just listen to those concluding thumps!

The Andante in G major startles us with its simplistic, aerial lightness of tone in plucked strings, a series of variations that provide the solace of nature. The canny use of pedal points has not been lost on Vänskä, who guides the shifting dynamic levels with a smooth finesse. The flight of Northern cranes supposedly inspired the finale, Allegro molto – Largamente assai, set in two thematic groups, a stubborn, busy ostinato and the horn-driven, martial impulse that Donald Tovey compared to Thor’s hammer. Sibelius made the definitive analogy for this work: “a river with innumerable tributaries feeding it before it broadens majestically and flows into the sea.” Vänskä has captured the fine swell of this noble music.

The initial musical cell contains a tritone and then a two-note motif that serves as a fulcrum for the cello entry by Anthony Ross. The brass intone harsh figures that the strings try to console, but the pedal point established does not bode well of fortune, especially harmonically. The sheer angularity of the phrases still unnerves us, more than a century after their conception. This quasi adagio section will end on A and then proceed to the second movement, Allegro molto vivace. A cold F Major ensues, although the oboe attempts to inject some warmth, perhaps suggesting a haunted waltz. A storm erupts — to an extent. With three drum taps, the music halts. Now, the core of the work, Il tempo largo, is a series of random variants in search of a leading motive, in tones that foreshadow Shostakovich. Vänskä’s grueling realization makes us witness an exercise in abortive efforts. Only the very last chords take hold to inspire the last movement, Allegro, colored by glockenspiel or tubular bells, as the conductor chooses. All the while the progression builds, but to what end? The stoic sense of structural disintegration invokes the apocalyptic poetry of T.S. Eliot, with bitter echoes from flute and oboe, bird calls that may “laugh but smile no more.” This Vänskä reading proves quite gripping, well worthy of the classic Stokowski and Beecham recordings that precede it as potent exemplars.

Sibelius in 1913

The slow genesis of Symphony No. 6 in D minor (1920-1923) involves the composer’s virtual confinement to his country house Järvenpää, only venturing forth in 1922 to visit fellow composer Wilhelm Stenhammar on the occasion of the premiere of the latter’s Second Piano Concerto. The Sixth Symphony eludes both easy definition and popular success, lacking as it does any heroic impulse or virtuoso orchestration. It possesses a modal allure, subtle and captivating. I have heard it in concert but once, a ravishing, incandescent performance by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra led by Michael Tilson Thomas. “A drink of pure spring water” Sibelius calls it, and he sets the music in the Dorian mode with a sonority reminiscent of old Renaissance motets in antiphonal, instrumental choirs.

Vänskä creates a subtle hue for the second movement, Allegretto moderato, which opens with a quick tap on the drum; then flutes and bassoons assume the rhythmically obscure pattern of scalar patterns. While the tempo accelerates, the music does not provide a true sense of melos but rather a kaleidoscope of colored tones in shifting metrics. The same melodic uncertainty pervades the Poco vivace third movement, which Vänskä keeps aerial and whimsical, the winds dominant, at least until the brass emerge for the first time. Descending and ascending scales in the violins and low strings mark the last movement, Allegro molto. Whatever climactic heights the music appears to promise Sibelius thwarts each time, relying more upon his modal, harmonic color to affect the enchantment of a finale. Lovely, mysterious, perhaps a kind of Cheshire Cat in music, the Sixth Symphony inhabits its own realm, far from the madding crowd.  

Sibelius originally titled his Symphony No. 7 in C major Fantasia sinfonica (1924), a single movement that evolves as an organic, rising scale pattern that soon assumes multifarious incarnations, the ultimate fusion of unity-in-variety. Woodwinds and strings assert melodic tissue and a sense of bucolic piety in this music. Vänskä takes a gradual, carefully etched approach, reminiscent of the devotional performance Evgeny Mravinsky left us with his Leningrad Philharmonic. The confidence and swagger of the music emits, after a fateful pedal point, a wash of sound that accelerates into a scherzando section, music that the great acolytes Koussevitzky, Beecham, Sanderling, and — most recently, courtesy of restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn — Nils Eric Fougstedt capture with lyrical abandon. Vänskä rises with sensitive alertness to the diverse challenges of this mighty symphonic study in thematic metamorphosis, conscious of the work’s rightful place in the potent history of the orchestral canon. The orchestral sheen Vänskä and his players achieve in the last eight minutes of this symphony warrants repeated listening.