performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle, Nigel Kennedy, violin
And just that fast it is 2014.
This ones’s been brewing for a while and I didn’t know when to do it. I suppose now is as good a time as any. Stay with me for a long foreword.
It’s a breakaway from the symphonies, and it opens up a whole new world of pieces to look at. I started listening to this piece around the time I covered Sibelius 2. It’s in the same Sibelius cycle set that Rattle did with the City of Birmingham symphony orchestra, and I ended up listening to it and was blown away. But first, let’s talk about how music happens. To a listener, I mean.
It’s a bit of a change in my listening process recently that has helped me to be more thorough (thorough, not necessarily professional) in my listening. I had the ridiculous aspiration of doing one symphony a day when I started this. There’s no way one can do that justice. Listening a time or two is good, but it just can’t be thorough enough from an amateur’s ear. So those few symphonies I did of Aho, Melartin, Rautavaara, (wow, the Finns!) Milhaud, etc. were less than mature efforts. I will eventually revisit them.
Those decisions were made to try to get a variety of music and styles on the blog, and also because I was intimidated by trying to address super famous classical works in the repertoire. What more is there to say that hasn’t been said about these? So I picked random things I hadn’t ever heard of before. Expanding one’s palate is great, but not in lieu of learning about the basic, more standard works.
I was on a kick for a while where I got to hear some pieces live, and that gave me the opportunity to be more thorough in my analysis. I would compare recordings if I had them, listen to the live performance, and then write about it. What happened, though, was that I ended up with a long string of similar-style works. I apparently love the Romantic era, and it apparently fits my personality, or so I have been told. Thus, I enjoy going to see these works live, and then wrote about them. So for a while it was Tchaikovsky 4 and 5, Sibelius 2, Rachmaninoff 2, Mahler 5, Dvorak 9, (not in that order), the Sibelius being the only one I didn’t hear live. To break up that string of big rich symphonies, mostly decided by programs I was going to hear, I intentionally chose something much farther outside my comfort zone and did Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. I probably listened to that one a dozen times before I felt ready to talk about it in any productive capacity.
Anyway, I heard someone once say that music should just ‘happen’ to a listener. This was in the context of me asking what I can do (or listen to, rather) to begin to appreciate Schoenberg’s works, and the response was that music just happens to you. You hear something once and don’t like it, but under different circumstances or at different times and a different palate, something instantly seems brilliant. Some of the music I really had to try to like, I now LOVE, and I don’t know why I was so intent on coming to understand it at the time. The best example of this I can think of is Scriabin’s piano sonatas. I started with #1, and then 3, 5, and then 6 through 9. Don’t know why I kind of breezed over 2, 4, and 10, but they are great as well. In any case, I was determined to come to understand them, not necessarily fall in love with them, but that’s what happened.
All that is to say that now, I have decided to let music happen. I want to spend more time getting familiar with different things more casually, and then be able to see what strikes me and go with it instead of picking something at random and beating it into submission. Sometimes that works, and that’s what I did with Mahler 5 and the Messiaen piece, but it maybe isn’t the best. I have quite a few pieces now on my radar in my listening rotation, and just yesterday listened to a piece I know I listened to a few months ago that at the time I felt left zero impression, but yesterday, for whatever reason, was thoroughly delightful. It’s on the waiting list. That having been said, my goal is to let the discovery and appreciation of music be more serendipitous, and with that in mind, we are doing something new.
The Piece Itself
I had originally intended to do a different piece this week, one which I adore parts of, but others of which I am not entirely familiar with yet, and it felt premature, so I scrapped it for now. This is one that’s been waiting for ages, like I said, and by now I’ve listened to it maybe a few dozen times, and it is always a pleasure.
Up until now, I’ve been doing symphonies (or symphonic pieces), with the exception of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, I think. This is a true concerto, with a soloist and everything. And it’s like…. one of the best.
Opus number 47 puts it right between symphonies 2 and 3. Pohjola’s Daughter and Belshazzar’s Feast were also composed around this time, although I am not familiar with those works. It is, however, interesting to me that we have a work of such butt-kicking amazingness between these two very different symphonies, number two being even more Romantically epic than the first symphony, and then number three being pared down, delicate and beautiful in an entirely different way.
I have my theory.
Sibelius had aspirations of being a virtuoso violinist, and he was in his teens when he kind of realized it wasn’t going to happen. He started too late or whatever, and just decided he couldn’t make up for lost time or catch up to his peers who’d started much earlier (I feel the same way with almost any musical endeavor, but instead of Sibelius realizing this at 15 and needing those ten formative years back, I’m realizing it much later and am needing those 20+ years back). His second symphony (some people also include the first as well) is the one that people say is the political one, with Sibelius fighting to represent not only himself but Finland as a nation. That aside, I feel like this concerto, as the first of his pieces for violin and orchestra (and the only actual concerto he wrote) is him working out that emotion of the desire to be a violinist. This is purely fictional (I assume, but that’s how it plays out in my mind), and there are no program notes to this effect, but that’s what it feels like. The piece as a whole is generally at least melancholy; I wouldn’t say full of despair or sadness, but it definitely isn’t a sunny piece, to me. A friend described it as being “deep violet purple with moments of sky blue” when listening to Hahn’s recording. It has its high points, but I do feel it expresses some degree of loss or regret. I see the three movements playing out something like this:
- Anger, denial, resentment
- realization, acknowledgement, the beginning of acceptance
- Maturity, letting go, moving forward, and a hint of rejoicing tempered by reminiscence
Let me restate…. nothing ANYWHERE makes any allusion to the above. There are no liner notes stating that Sibelius wrote this concerto as a coping mechanism to work out his anxiety and despair over not becoming the Menuhin or Heifetz or Perlman of his era, but after having read that he had aspirations of becoming a violinist and then letting that dream go after realizing it wasn’t going to happen, these are the emotions, I can hear, partially because I can relate to it in some way or another. I also found it interesting that a composer who wanted so badly to be a virtuoso (not that he couldn’t play the violin, just that he never reached that level) was the one who wrote what many consider to be the greatest and most difficult violin concerti in the repertoire. Granted, the Tchaikovsky, Bruch, Beethoven, Brahms, Berg, Mendelssohn, and Schoenberg are all also very well known. Since I have never so much as touched a violin (although I am getting one), I cannot comment on what exactly it is that makes this piece of such virtuosic difficulty, but it is wonderful.
I did listen to a number of other recordings. Although from what I’ve read of Kennedy, he doesn’t seem like an individual I would like as a person, I do respect his prima donna demand that he have significantly more time to rehearse with an ensemble/conductor before a performance to produce a worthwhile interpretation, and his recording with Rattle is the one I’ve listened to the most, and I quite enjoy his performance, although it does NOT appear on some lists of “best/favorite Sibelius VC recording” I have looked at. I listened to Menuhin/LPO/Boult, a mono recording from 1955 I think, and again, I cannot comment on the performance of the violinist, I feel the mono recording detracts a bit from one of the unique points in this symphony, that the soloist and orchestra blend so well; the orchestra plays just as critical a part as the soloist in the performance to create what is a very rich, large, intensely in-your-face symphony-like concerto rather than something more chamber-y with a soloist and a background. I feel a bit of that was lost in the mono recording and some of the important orchestral parts weren’t as crisply recorded, but again, that’s only because it was a mono recording. The very last note of the piece didn’t drown out the violinist like it did in the Kennedy/Rattle recording, but these are minor opinion-based points from someone who really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I assume as virtuosos go, Menuhin, Heifetz, Hahn, Oistrakh, Vengerov, or someone else may garner more respect than Kennedy, but I listened to Heifetz too. Aside from the higher quality recording, I also enjoyed the energy in this recording, which may come from the tempi all being faster. I am still already used to the Kennedy recording, though. I am not THAT familiar with each of the different recordings to say definitively which I think is “better”, but I enjoyed the crispness and accuracy of the Heifetz, even if it seemed less emotionally intense.
All that nonsense aside, this is just a wonderful piece of music. It is dramatic and full of feeling and emotion, and I think it’s one that deserves a cozy sit by the fire with a cup of hot something, good headphones, eyes closed and just enjoy the way you would a movie. It is mesmerizingly wonderful. I’m glad this was a concerto he wrote during his big intensely towering Romantic symphonies period. Go enjoy it.