A Magnificent Start to Simon Rattle’s Sibelius Cycle in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius: Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 10.2.2015 (CS)

Symphony No.1 in E minor Op.39
Symphony No.2 in D Op.43


There was a festival mood at the Barbican for this first concert in the Berliner Philharmoniker’s 2015 London Residency, a series which will see the orchestra – and chamber ensembles formed from its personnel – perform at the Barbican Hall and the Southbank Centre, joining forces with the CBSO and London Symphony Choruses and with an array of esteemed soloists.  A complete cycle of Sibelius’ symphonies; the formation and involvement of the Young Orchestra for London, involving 100 musicians aged 11 to 21, representing all of Greater London’s 33 boroughs; BBC broadcasts and special features, including a major new BBC Two documentary, Simon Rattle: The Making Of A Maestro; Rattle’s 60th birthday: a celebratory cornucopia!

Sibelius is in Rattle’s musical blood – he explored the symphonies intensely during his years with the CBSO; but, when the conductor arrived in Berlin in 2002 to take up the position of Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, the Finnish composer was seldom heard in German concert halls.  It seems incredible that when Rattle programmed the symphonies in 2010 the Berliner Philharmoniker had never performed a complete Sibelius cycle, and had not given even a single performance of the Third Symphony.

‘If Sibelius is good, this invalidates all of the criteria historically used to evaluate standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg.’  For years, Theodor Adorno’s infamous tirade against Jean Sibelius (Mahler and Schoenberg = good; Sibelius = bad) cast a shadow over the composer’s reputation in Germany with the result that Sibelius’s music was little known, seldom performed and rarely admired.  Rattle’s 2010 series shattered this perception of Sibelius as amateur scribbler, ‘afraid to take lessons in composition’.  Five years on, Rattle has returned to the cycle, performing all seven symphonies first in Berlin and now here in London.

For all its ‘nationalist’ inflections, its debt to Tchaikovsky and its characteristically organic unfolding of ideas, the most striking thing about Sibelius’s First Symphony seems to me to be the sheer ruggedness of its symphonic structure.  From the improvisatory clarinet solo with which the first movement commences to the fff poundings, harp sweeps and racing fortissimo string passages of the closing pages of the Finale, the musical ‘fragments’ cohere and accumulate to form a craggy mass which is at once both imposing and lean.

And, it was this sense of a progressively growing symphonic edifice which Rattle communicated so powerfully in this intense performance of the First Symphony, in which dark shadows were juxtaposed with elegiac wistfulness.  The first bars of the Andante ma non troppo epitomised the expansiveness of the vistas that Rattle would craft – the rhapsodic clarinet solo floating above the gradually increasing timpani tremolo; then, with the start of the Allegro energico, the second violins’ isolated repeating major third, punctuated by low horn, bassoon and double bass.  The spaces loomed wide: but, when they were filled with bursts of full orchestral sound, there was great joy and richness, only for the resonance and brightness swiftly to retreat.  I was amazed by the way that dynamism gave way so suddenly to stillness, the underlying forward urge maintained in the quietly pulsing timpani or double basses.  Indeed, I had not previously perceived the degree to which the timpani (played with great sensitivity and musicality here by Wieland Welzel) is the architectural bedrock of this symphony – something that also seemed true of the Second Symphony which followed.

Rattle, conducting from memory, exhibited an innate command of the formal workings of the first movement – the way it seems to ‘unfurl’ – expertly shaping the composer’s trademark long pedal points (as in the Tranquillo section which ends the movement), and generating onward drive – in the passages which precede this Tranquillo, when the strings’ rising pizzicato crotchet motifs converse beneath two solo violins, or when the cellos and double basses rumble in chromatic quavers which ascend and subside in long winding lines.

Rattle has previously lamented London’s lack of a ‘great’ concert hall (‘The Barbican is a good concert hall but it’s not a great concert hall … It would be wonderful if  there was a hall as good as in Birmingham or Manchester, or even the Snape Maltings in Suffolk. Great orchestras deserve a great instrument to play in.’) However, while the strings, particularly the lower strings, did at times seem to have to work quite hard, the woodwind solos and dialogues etched glassy lines through the orchestral textures.  I’d have liked a little more pathos – the gentle nostalgia of the Kalevala – from the sighing muted strings at the start of the second movement Andante, but as the melody meanderingly evolved there were striking colour contrasts: the low thudding timpani heartbeat; thunderous (perfectly co-ordinated) stabbing violin down bows; a beautifully expressive cello solo (Bruno Delepelaire) accompanied by glacial flute and oboe crotchets with the timpani murmuring in the depths beneath.  Every instrumental gesture was made to tell, from the delicate harp sweeps that accompany a flute/horn duet, to the percussive vibrancy of the triangle and cymbals, to the tuba’s powerful entry towards the close of the movement.

Rattle impelled his players through the Andante’s accelerando surges, then allowed peace to descend at the close; but, any sense of rest was quickly dispelled by the driving low string pizzicatos which initiated the Scherzo with startling vigour, establishing a whirlwind energy which did not lessen through the movement’s complex rhythmic interplays, the storm finally blowing itself out with the arrival of the Trio and the sweet-toned sustained lines of horns and bassoons.  Sibelius marked his Finale, ‘Quasi una fantasia’, and here again the themes and fragments organically progressed, culminating in a wonderfully eloquent final statement of the main theme and a scintillating conclusion.  It felt as if we had been told a story, a narrative which combined the epic with the poetic.

If the First Symphony retains some of the elusiveness of myth, the Second Symphony speaks more directly and Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker had us gripped and entranced throughout.  Rattle seemed like a painter at the start of the Allegretto, calling forth colour washes of sound, the cantabile lines heroic and warm.  There were moments of violence and prophecy, though – an agitated driving string pizzicato episode, thrilling timpani blows, incessantly circling string quavers beneath crystalline woodwind solos and ensembles.  Rattle generated enormous passion and tension, particularly towards the end of the first movement, before the string crotchets gently subsided into a brief silence.  And, it was wonderful to see how he sustained direct, even burning, eye contact with his players, coaxing detailed rises and falls from the pizzicato double basses for example, or seeming to ‘sing’ with this section at the close of the second movement Andante.

The strings’ driving triplet ‘turn’ furiously kick-started the perpetuum mobile of the Scherzo (Vivacissimo); such was the fury, that the melodic interjections of first the flute and bassoon and then the other woodwind voices had a sweet tenderness which took one by surprise, but which beautifully anticipated the gentle pastoralism of the Lento e soave Trio.  Rattle, aided once again by his timpanist, effected a wonderful transition between worlds, the second statement of the Trio section being enriched further by the richness of sustained mellow horn chords.

The strings’ octave unison statement at the start of the Finale, Allegro moderato was stirring and fervent, but in the swirling tranquillo episode which follows Rattle had the courage to subdue his players’ sound to almost nothing, reviving the dark hints of threat from earlier in the symphony.  With the low strings circling ceaselessly and menacingly, Rattle used the movement’s harmonic developments and shifts to push the music forward, generating a huge resurgence of energy and building to a triumphal, glowing apotheosis.

Claire Seymour

2 thoughts on “A Magnificent Start to Simon Rattle’s Sibelius Cycle in London”

  1. “the timpani (played with great sensitivity and musicality here by Rainer Seegers)”

    It was Wieland Welzel playing on this occasion, not Rainer Seegers.


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