More Memorable Sibelius from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius: Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall London, 12.2.2015 (CS)

Sibelius: Symphony No.5 in E-flat, Op.82
Sibelius: Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Sibelius: Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

As I travelled to the Barbican Hall for the third and last instalment of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Sibelius cycle, I browsed through a slim, rather faded, typescript document entitled ‘The Nature of Symphonic Thought in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies of Jean Sibelius’ … an undergraduate dissertation from yesteryear which surprised me, first because my adolescent scribblings were not nearly as effusive I had feared, and second because it remind me of the passion which these three great symphonic works so evidently inspired in my younger self.

Later in the evening, Simon Rattle and the Berliners gave a remarkable account of Sibelius’s ‘symphonic thought’, one that will remain embedded in memories and hearts for many years to come. But, one also that surprised as much as it satisfied. Indeed, a fellow audience member – when startled by an unanticipated, rhythmic ‘jarring’ towards the close of the Seventh Symphony – remarked, ‘Rattle knows these symphonies inside out, but it’s as if he doesn’t’. In my mind, this was a compliment: Rattle made us listen and think, and then think again.

Rattle’s tempi were driving and unsettling, and the conductor made the Fifth Symphony feel like a colossal confrontation between the rhythmic and temporal complexity of Sibelius’s score and the sheer power and weight of the Berliners’ sound. There was a prevailing tense expectancy. At the start of the Tempo molto moderato, the woodwinds’ melancholy fragments led into shimmering string semiquavers which gradually assumed melodic definition; and Rattle emphasised this unceasing sense of development and change, accelerando passages suddenly giving way to static pauses, then sweeping on once more. At times, I was startled by the tremendous energy which the conductor seemed to whip up, almost out of nowhere – most especially in the passage which surges into the scherzo, which itself acquired such compelling impetus that in the closing bars the Philharmoniker seemed like a vast storm-wind that blew itself out in exhausted triumph.

The Andante mosso was, in contrast, more introspective, though the string pizzicatos were unfailingly well-defined and the woodwind motifs remarkable both for the beautiful blend of the ensemble groupings and the striking distinctiveness of individual voices. The first bassoonist deserves especial mention for some marvellous playing – particularly in the opening movement – while the oboe in the last movement was similarly penetrating and eloquent. The heroic hymn which ends the Allegro-molto Finale was gloriously announced by the horns, a slowly swinging pendulum which temporarily restrained the onward rush, then gathered its own unstoppable momentum towards the close. Here Rattle wonderfully balanced the glorious legato of the trumpets’ swaying minims against the driving syncopations of the strings. The final bars were an astonishing blend of blazing power and spacious light.

In Rattle’s hands, the Sixth Symphony – which I have tended to view as more shadowy and ‘poetic’ than the colossal Fifth – became in Rattle’s hands a vast hymn, by turns raging, then melancholy. The scalic polyphony of the opening bars reminded me of the antiphonal power of Palestrina, the strings’ surprisingly weighty lines evolving and self-enveloping, woodwind duets and ensembles emerging and receding. Here, and indeed throughout the symphony, what I found most remarkable was the tension between tempi which seem fast and music which suggests slowness – at times an almost Wagnerian slowness: the Allegretto moderato was particularly suffused with this conflict.

Rattle delighted in highlighting the inner dialogues as the organically evolving thematic motifs conversed – second violins speaking to woodwinds, say – and this emphasised just how many musical arguments Sibelius sustains simultaneously, although it perhaps also weakened the impression of the overall architectural foundations. The Berliners’ string sound did not conjure the glacial chill of the Finnish fjords – but this made us hear the familiar music anew. And, there were some amazingly dark orchestra surges in the Allegro molto; the strings’ final rise and fall was both defiant and despairing, fading into resignation.

The Berliner Philharmoniker’s performance of the Seventh Symphony was a little ragged – after their Herculean progress through the preceding six symphonies, it was not surprising and perhaps oddly appropriate that the Seventh seemed to rear up as one final, immense edifice to be overcome. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Rattle’s elision of the final two symphonies: the Seventh does not seem to me to serve as a ‘final movement’ of the Sixth, and I felt that a longer breath was needed before the timpani’s quietly accented opening stroke. There was much unrest and tension throughout, driven by Rattle’s relentless attention to detail: from the strings’ climbing crescendo in the first bars, with the double basses lagging and pulling at the rising phrase, to the final statement of the motivic turn figure which roared through the closing bars. The trombone’s third statement of the ‘motto’ theme was no blaze of glory, instead seeming to emerge from deep within the orchestral belly, a shady but indomitable primeval force. The final bars were shattering: this was no warm, comforting resolution, rather an exhausted howl.

In these three wonderful concerts, Rattle has reminded us of the almost unfathomable ‘rightness’ of the symphonies, giving us a powerful insight into a Sibelius who was symphonist, nationalist, individualist and modernist. I left the Barbican Hall feeling invigoratingly challenged and stirred, as I’m sure did so many. In summing up my experience, I cannot better the words of the composer Robert Simpson: ‘Composers who thought that the symphony was dead, would have done better to pause and consider that music is capable of living at the highest and most complete human level; that this involves the perception, within a single concentrated artistic union, of the greatest imaginable range of experience of human feeling and movement. This one can call symphony …’

Claire Seymour

This concert will be shown on BBC4 television on Sunday, February 15, starting at 20:00. For readers able to access BBC Radio 3 via the internet this concert can be heard for 30 days from the date of original transmission by clicking here. The preceding two concerts are similarly available

1 thought on “More Memorable Sibelius from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker”

  1. Claire Seymour was correct to observe “Rattle’s relentless attention to detail” but this was always at the expense of understanding each symphony as a symphonic whole which Rattle totally failed to do. Seymour correctly stated: “Rattle’s tempi were driving and unsettling.” Unsettling in that the tempi were blatantly just wrong and not what the composer wanted. In the first movement of the 5th Symphony, Rattle brought the music almost to a halt so losing the sense of forward momentum. Why does Rattle always opt for such exaggerated and distorted tempi changes that are not marked in the score? I found Rattle’s conducting of all the Sibelius Symphonies very labored and mannered, ponderous and pedestrian, and the often slightly paused held-back audience applause uncannily revealed that something was not quite right. Despite Berglund being Rattle’s Sibelius teacher, Rattle does not seemed to have grasped how to conduct Sibelius. After each concert I left the Barbican Hall feeling depressed and annoyed, angry and frustrated, knowing that this was certainly not how Sibelius should be conducted.


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