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London Symphony Orchestra

Orchestra Hall, December 11 through 13

By Lee Sandlin

This month Colin Davis brought the London Symphony Orchestra to town for three programs devoted entirely to the music of Jean Sibelius. I went to all three, and it proved to be a luxurious experience: you don't often get the chance to saturate yourself with live performances of any composer's music. Davis's concerts seemed designed to show how many of Sibelius's treasures have been neglected, and on this score it was a triumphant success. Masterpiece after little-known masterpiece came thundering into Orchestra Hall like newly restored royalty. Davis conducted five of the seven symphonies, the great Violin Concerto, three of the symphonic poems, and a suite of the rarely heard songs--as comprehensive a retrospective as we're likely to get this side of Helsinki. But I would have been willing to sit through another set just as long, if only to find out if we'd ever start scraping the bottom of the barrel.

For the most part, the concerts were gorgeously played. Davis has long been known as an excellent Sibelius conductor; he's recorded most of the orchestral works, including two complete sets of the symphonies--once, to wide acclaim, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the mid-70s, and again a decade later, to even greater acclaim, with the LSO. (Both sets are now competing with each other on CD.) You'd think that this success would sooner or later amount to an invitation to coast, but Davis's concerts at Orchestra Hall showed him at the top of his game. A couple of the performances were as good or better than any he's recorded.

Nonetheless the series felt incomplete--not so much because crucial works had been left out as because there was some side to the works Davis did conduct that he didn't quite get. At the end Sibelius seemed as baffling a figure as he'd always been. His music is so impassioned and theatrical, and yet its emotional core seems subzero; you can't understand how work of such florid imagination could emerge from a soul so inward and reserved. And then there's the biggest enigma: why he stopped composing. His last works were written in the late 1920s and very early '30s, when he was in his 50s and 60s and at the height of his powers; he lived almost 30 more years in total creative silence. No biographer has yet provided a satisfactory account of this, though everybody has a different theory--alcoholism, chronic illness, creative exhaustion, laziness (he got a government pension and didn't need the money anymore). So I suppose it was unfair of me to hope that Davis's total-immersion approach to the music might crack the mystery and reveal some Rosebud-like solution. Still, we did get a few tantalizing clues.

The series started out on a dazzling high, with strong and well-conceived performances of Sibelius's most drearily familiar works--the Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto, and the symphonic poem The Swan of Tuonela. These are the pieces that create for most listeners Sibelius's characteristic mental landscape: that famous glittering iciness, like a limitless vista of glaciers; that deep provincial fascination with folklore and fairy tales. It's easy to see why works like these made Sibelius such a popular composer during his lifetime. They are saturated in the Romantic idiom--in their sumptuous, post-Beethoven orchestral textures and in their sentimental use of native melodies and dances. At the same time they sound thoroughly original, without any of that threatening modernist dissonance.

Or anyway they once did, before they'd been played to death for the better part of a century. Davis tried to conduct them with a fresh ear, and he didn't do too badly. The Swan of Tuonela made for a fine, moody start; Davis took it at a snail's pace, blurring the dramatic contrasts and drawing out the adagio passages into a kind of dreamy insubstantiality. In the past he's been criticized for being too brisk with Sibelius's slower pieces, too British and businesslike to savor fully that Nordic melancholy; maybe he was using The Swan of Tuonela to announce that he was willing to take his time. (His performances of Sibelius, both live and on record, have been growing more and more stately--the LSO CDs are substantially slower than the Boston.) But for me the highlight of this evening was his fiery Violin Concerto. The performance by the soloist, Kyoko Takezawa (who was new to me), was pretty effective. This solo violin part has become famous for its fiendish technical difficulty and has become a standard performance piece for young violinists who want to show off their note-perfect skill. Takezawa went the other way, allowing herself a lot of slurred and unarticulated passages in exchange for greater emotional expressiveness. I think this is the right trade-off; android-style excellence may be all very well, but what matters with this work is that strange, wandering, yearning melodic line, floating above the ominously massed forces of the orchestra like the hero in a dark fairy story.

Still, I wouldn't have been as impressed with Davis if he'd put these pieces forward as a summing up. (Especially the Second Symphony--Davis turned in an exuberant and speedy performance, but I'm so sick of this piece that I still couldn't work up the slightest enthusiasm for what he was doing.) It was the next night that the program began venturing onto unknown terrain: the strange and mazelike Fourth Symphony, the mysterious Seventh, and a little suite of the rarely played songs. This was the riskiest of the three concerts, and unfortunately it was the only one where Davis ran into real problems.

There were those songs, first of all. I can't say I minded hearing them; they were performed well by soprano Katarina Dalayman, and it was interesting to find out what sort of poems Sibelius liked to set. (Not surprisingly, they were heavy on despair, drowning, world-weariness, and "night-black roses.") But they still only amount to a marginal part of Sibelius's achievement. Moreover, as diligent consulting of the program revealed, he didn't score them for full orchestra, but for voice and piano. The orchestrated versions we heard had been worked up by other composers. They weren't bad, but they just didn't sound enough like Sibelius to me--more like Wagner on an off day. I suppose that's only to be expected, since Wagner was the dominant influence on composers back then. But I kept thinking that Sibelius's own orchestrations probably would have been more original--if only because he hated admitting that he'd been influenced by Wagner and went out of his way to sound as little like him as possible.

But the real disappointment was the Fourth Symphony. It's a difficult work, probably the most eccentric thing Sibelius ever wrote: his one extended exploration of the modernist idiom, an elusive structure filled with strange orchestral textures, deconstructed melodies, and baffling swerves of tone. Davis tried to make it as accessible as possible by conducting it much the way he did The Swan of Tuonela; he softened the jarring juxtapositions and slowed down all the tempi. It was as though he were trying to turn it into nothing more than an extended mood piece--a little dark, maybe, but certainly not as threatening as its reputation would suggest. The result was kind of dull. I would rather Davis had sped up and stressed the more intransigent elements with more force (as he does to good effect on his edgy Boston recording). The audience wasn't buying it either; within a couple of minutes they were squirming and coughing like kindergartners trapped at a school assembly.

Davis regained his footing with the Seventh Symphony. On the face of it, this is an even more avant-garde work than the Fourth: the structure of a standard symphony is collapsed into a single 20-minute movement of extreme formal density. But it has one thing the Fourth lacks--a strong dramatic line half concealed beneath all its bewildering interlacements. Davis caught hold of it and built it up into one unbroken surge, from the dark groundswell of the opening notes to the soaringly mysterious coda. It was a triumphant performance--much more impressive than either of his recordings of it--and one that deservedly summoned up a cataclysm of applause.

It also proved a good lead-in for the last night, which was given over to the Third and Fifth symphonies. These represent Sibelius at his fullest reach, and Davis inhabited them with majestic assurance. They're extraordinary works, drivingly dramatic and glitteringly lyrical. Their rich melodies are swathed in the most sumptuous orchestral colors; the complex, even sprawling thematic development dovetails into dynamic and innovative formal constructions; and their unconventional textures and surprising contrasts never get in the way of their forward-sweeping momentum. They demonstrate that Sibelius was capable of writing modern works fully the equal of the great symphonies of the 19th century. They show--or ought to have shown--that the Romantic idiom wasn't yet played out but had the power to move into something new.

Instead they turned out to be a dead end. That's what's so frustrating about hearing them now--you can't understand how works so vital could have proved to be the last of their kind. But when the modernist movement turned its back on the whole of Romanticism, it threw aside the best new works along with a century's worth of exhausted cliches. Then too, Sibelius didn't follow up these triumphs and consolidate the grand new vistas he'd discovered--he stopped composing.

Maybe the reason is simply that he felt obsolete; the musical tradition he loved had been overthrown, and he didn't think he could compete with the revolutionists. That's possible--after all, other composers in those days found the anarchy of modernism not liberating but strangling. But I don't believe that a composer as ferociously inward as Sibelius would care about changes in musical fashion--or for that matter would let much of anything about the exterior world bother him. (That's why I find the usual theories for his silence unconvincing.) I wonder if the reasons can be found within Sibelius's music itself.

What's so interesting about listening to this much of any composer's work back-to-back is that previously unnoticed characteristics start jumping out at you. First there's Sibelius's thematic claustrophobia. He didn't get a lot of new ideas. The great symphonies--the Third, the Fifth, the Seventh--may be immeasurably more sophisticated than the first couple, but they still sound like they're reworking the same material. It's as though Sibelius had been assigned a certain fixed quantity of music at birth and spent his life deploying it in different patterns. After a while this concert series was like watching somebody deal out game after game of solitaire. The only difference I could hear between the early works and the late is that the games got progressively more intense: the more Sibelius composed, the more obviously obsessed he became with eliminating everything superfluous, with not wasting a single note, with making each new work a more profound advance into stylistic purity.

That's a dangerous trap for any artist to fall into. Some of Sibelius's later work is so tense with the obligation to be a greater accomplishment than its predecessors that it seems on the edge of a nervous breakdown. You can hear it in one of the works Davis didn't conduct, the little-known Sixth Symphony (his recording with the BSO is distinctly rushed, almost as if he were hurrying through the most tangled passages for fear of what's lurking there). This symphony conceals behind its restrained surface a kind of panic; it's like an overcomplicated machine that's getting out of control. Some very original material is folded into its depths, but none of it is allowed to assert itself--as if Sibelius feared it might go on too long and include unnecessary or gratuitous notes. Every movement breaks off at a moment of maximum irresolution, as though a coda would seem vulgarly overdone. No wonder the next symphony Sibelius wrote, his seventh and last, is so fiercely concentrated it collapses in on itself like a black hole. (According to some writers, he spent years working on an eighth symphony but ended up destroying it.)

There was also Sibelius's lifelong fascination with irrational and incommunicable states of being. This isn't easy to pick up on at first, because he was adept at finding conventional-seeming disguises; his incessant recourse to folklore motifs, for instance, allowed him to cloak some very strange and elusive music in the cliches of the supernatural. Behind the picturesqueness of the material is always a sense of isolation and untranslatable dread. Nor did he lose this quality when he moved on to other musical idioms. That's what makes the Fourth Symphony so peculiar; it was supposed to be his big attempt to break out of provincialism into the cosmopolitan big time of the modernists, and instead it turned out to be just as inward, haunted, and sinister as anything he ever wrote. It was as though he'd simply found a new set of masks; he used the repertoire of modernist techniques to externalize his private demons as he had once used children's stories of the doomed Kullervo and the heroic Lemminkainen.

In his last works the claustrophobia and the occult terror are on the rise. His interior life is sealed off, open only to those strange winds from another world. The Seventh Symphony, for instance, builds up an interwoven tangle of dynamic tensions but, unlike the Third and Fifth, doesn't resolve them in a great triumphant coda; instead it all melts away into ethereal brass fanfares, like a vision of the northern lights shimmering beyond a frozen mountain range. His last major completed work--the symphonic poem Tapiola (another allusion to Finnish folklore; Tapiola is the god of the remotest northern forests)--is even more extreme. An austere melodic phrase is surrounded by an increasingly bizarre and difficult orchestral landscape; the forward movement isn't resolved but fades into a spectral little passage for strings, like a line of footprints vanishing in the snow. Evidently it was not a trip Sibelius was able to return from.

This is the side of Sibelius we didn't get enough of in Davis's concerts. Even in his terrific performances of the more accessible works--the Third and Fifth were among the best I've ever heard--he left mostly untouched that tantalizing and dangerous terrain on the edge of the abyss.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo of Colin Davis.

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