Sibelius Symphony no 3 in C, op. 52

performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä

I cannot think of a better contrast to the previous Mahler symphony as this piece. Do I love it? Yes. Does it make me want to stop everything I’m doing and put on big headphones (or get big speakers) and just let the music wash over me? Yes. Does it make me feel like I’m floating? Yes. Does it create an alternate world and explain every single thing and address every issue and emotion of humankind and run the gamut of human experience so that there is nothing left to say?

But before we get to that, some basic info about this piece. It was composed in 1907, the premiere conducted by the composer with the Helsinki Philharmonic society. The first recording of the piece was made by Robert Kajanus with the LSO, Kajanus being a critically important influence in Sibelius’ life and work. The symphony is very classical in both its structure and orchestration: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, three trombones, timpani and strings. The extreme beauty in this symphony comes from its austere simplicity. Nothing is overstated or out of place, but the simple and gripping first few bars of the piece suddenly blossom into breathtaking beauty. The second movement is almost hauntingly beautiful. The themes in both of these movements are simple and understand, develop naturally and classically, but stick. The theme in the second movement had the same effect on me that the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony did. It burrowed into my head and stuck with me so that I almost couldn’t sleep. It is gorgeous. The third movement is my least favorite, not that I don’t care for it, because it does bring the piece to a close nicely, if not abruptly. It is coherent in its quotation of the other two movements and comes to a simple dignified end. What a densely, enjoyably deceptively simple symphony. There’s a lot going on here, but in an entirely different way than his first two symphonies. They were huge, towering impressive thundering amazing big works. I have listened through but am not thoroughly familiar with his later symphonies, but this one seems to be unique and mark a turning point in his oeuvre. Let’s talk about some other ideas for a bit.

I chose Kamu and the Berlin Philharmonic because I liked the second movement the most. Did I analyze all of them with a professional ear? No. Did I compare recordings when I was blown away by Rattle’s recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra? No. Should I now? Yes. Rattle and the CBSO was the first recording I heard of this piece, and although some seem to dislike that entire box set, it was enough to  mesmerize me with most of his music: the first three symphonies as well as the violin concerto so far. For this one, I got a bit more involved, and compared a few recordings. I tried:

Kamu and the Berlin Philharmonic
Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony
Rattle and the CBSO
Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra
Bernstein and the NY Phil

Bernstein and Gibson both interpreted the second movement super fast, and although I can appreciate this far more brisk tempo, it loses a bit of the almost heartbreaking emotional nostalgia that Kamu has. I would still like to get Ashkenazy’s set as well as a recording of Kajanus, which I understand is essential to a good Sibelius collection. I’ve also heard Berglund and Barbirollo/Halle are pretty great. But I

Mahler and Sibelius’ views on the symphony were about as opposite as can be. Not this symphony, just ‘the symphony’ in general, as a form. I say this for a few reasons.

1. Let’s look at their two famous comments on the symphony as a form:
A. Sibelius: ”I admire the symphony’s style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives.”
B. Mahler: ”The symphony is like the world; it must embrace everything.”

2. This article by Kenneth Woods, a conductor himself, speaking of the style of notation and how they entrust their work to the performers.

I don’t want to use the word minimalist because of its association to the modern minimalist style of music (to which Philip Glass hates being attributed), but to compare these two extremes, it’s almost necessary. Mahler would therefore be the… maximalist, especially as per his famous quote above. The symphony should have and be and express and contain and represent everything that is, was, or will be and contain it in a perfectly-constructed architecture of emotion and music. He threw limitations out the window with his choruses and small armies of obscure percussion, throwing brass players out into the audience, soloists, half-hour fifth movements, etc.

Don’t get me wrong; none of this is criticism. I am in awe and amazement of Mahler’s 2nd, as I discussed in the previous post. However, the ultimate effect is that it leaves nothing to the imagination. He is explicit and clear with everything there is to be felt and said and done and told, not only to the audience, but to the performers too. He is famously specific and meticulously detailed in his very German notes and instructions. Does this yield an awe-inspiringly masterful result? Absolutely. But the difference in approach is interesting. It reminds me of Itay Talgam’s TED talk presenting the drastically different styles of conducting (or leading) and how not one is wrong, they are just different ways of accomplishing the same thing, with perhaps a slightly different result. In the above article by Kenneth Woods, he shares a quote of Sibelius in which he says (I paraphrase) that if someone looks at the score and doesn’t understand what should be done here or there to create an accurate interpretation, that is to say he doesn’t understand it, then he shouldn’t be performing or preparing that piece. Mahler was apparently a supremely insightful conductor, and in one of the Universal Edition interviews in their Mahler series (with either Loren Maazel or Zubin Mehta, I forget), they stated that Mahler potentially put all of those notations and notes and instructions in there because he knew as a conductor what the conductor’s tendency would likely be for this or that passage. Smart man, for sure. Needless to say, I have not prepared Sibelius 3 for performance as a conductor (nor have I ever prepared any piece for performance as a conductor), but I would imagine Sibelius’ stark lack of direction or interpretative notes would impart upon the interpreter a need to think, meditate on, and interpret the music such that one understands it innately. Does Mahler’s plethora of direction handicap the conductor’s need or ability to study and understand the score on a deeper level? I don’t know. On another topic, we are looking at the idea of limitations. Sibelius’ comments on enjoying the symphony’s “severity of form” speaks to me. There’s no right or wrong where art is concerned, but within a specific medium or form, there are rules. A haiku has (how many? I forget) a specific number of lines and syllables, and anything outside that form may be poetic, but it isn’t a haiku. The symphonic form is (at least in the past 100 years) not nearly as strict and well-defined as all that, but there is still something to be said for working with and creating something beautiful within pre-defined limitations and constraints. I didn’t mention it in the Mahler post, but it’s almost like he cheated. A chorus, soloists, off stage brass sections and the percussion and everything. I go back to listen to my favorite Tchaikovsky or Dvorak and they seem… Almost inferior. To get back to leaving nothing to the imagination, let’s compare Alfred Hitchcock’s approach to horror and suspense (which I love) with most of today’s horror movies (Saw comes to mind) which I refuse to see. What is left to the imagination? Where is the power of suggestion? Sibelius works within the confines of the classical symphonic ideal to create a very organic sounding, refined, moving, beautiful, even haunting symphony that moves and impresses in only half an hour. Be it cinematography, cuisine, poetry, or music, there is something to be said for restraint.


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