Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sibelius at 150 (Part 4): Delving the Fourth

In his obituary for Sibelius, published in the December 1957 issue of The Gramophone, Harold Rutland wrote: "The Fourth Symphony, enigmatic though it may be at first hearing, probably contains the quintessence of the composer's genius."  With this I would wholeheartedly agree. The Fourth, in my estimation, is Sibelius' greatest and most inspired symphonic conception, albeit less-readily accessible to the average listener than many of his other more widely-celebrated works, sometimes bewildering and often difficult to comprehend. It is also the composer's most singularly personal statement on an orchestral scale.

Written between the spring of 1910 and February of 1911 following a prolonged period of stress about his health (a cancerous tumor of the throat for which Sibelius underwent a pair of risky operations), the Fourth is the composer's walk through the shadow of the valley of death. The music seems to rise up like Dante's path out of the Inferno through Purgatory, a dreary landscape of foreboding ice and glacier, oppressive lowering mists and impassable canyon walls. Yet, ultimately, taken as a whole, the Fourth suggests a journey from the gloom of existential despair towards something akin to hope.

This is not to say that the work requires a programatic interpretation to be approached or understood.
For all its outward austerity, the Fourth is actually quite straightforward in terms of structure and thematic organization. The motivic germ of the symphony--the idea from which all else grows and flows-- is the tri-tone interval, the so-called "diminished fifth." (A famous and familiar example of this interval is heard in the first two notes of Maria from Bernstein's West Side Story; the melodic leap from 'Ma' to 'ri' clearly spells out the tri-tone.) In Sibelius' Fourth, it is this interval, incorporated into a craggy four-note melodic figure (c, d, f-sharp, e) that we first hear, rising up from the deeps of divided double basses, celli, and bassoons. Once a listener gets this tangy tetrachord into her head, she will begin to notice it everywhere throughout the piece. The entire symphony is built on these first four notes, which, although constantly varied, rearranged, and disguised, form a principle of contunuity--a single, long, unbroken line-- that ties the whole work together.

Thus, structure proceeds from theme, which, in itself, puts this symphony outside the realm of the conventional. The problem for any would-be interpreter is how to reveal the development of this highly dissonant thematic material in a way that is also lyrical and musically satisfying. As such, it may be instructive to compare recordings by several great 20th century conductors who revisited the work several times over the course of their careers; Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, and Sir Colin Davis.

[EMI 7243 5 57754 0  5 (2004 re-issue)]

Herbert von Karajan

Karajan's classic mono recording for EMI dates from 1954, and was highly praised by the composer himself. The reading is darkly atmospheric, weighty, and dramatically paced, yet the conductor also emphasized the essential lyricism of the score. This counter-intuitive 'coving off' of the sharper edges without sacrificing transparent structural integrity or introspective depth may well be what Sibelius so admired in Karajan's performance.

The interpretive history of almost any 'new music' that survives long enough to become part of the standard repertory may be characterized by a growing sense of understanding, familiarity, and comfort on the part of performers and audiences alike. Premiere performances can often seem rough and unmusical, while subsequent exectuion becomes more refined, often to a point where the piece loses its original power to shock or surprise altogether. In 1954, the Fourth was little more than forty years old, and had a history of decidedly mixed critical response, yet Karajan revealed this symphony to be not only a great work, but a beautiful one.

[DG (Originals) 457-748-2 (n.d)]

Karajan returned to the score in 1968, recording the Fourth with the Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Gramophone. This later interpretation seems overly-prettified, emphasizing surface-deep beauties at the expense of structural lucidity. This is more of an impressionistic approach to the music, and though the performance has a certain dark allure, the all-important long-line is lost in the indulgence of the moment.

[Decca (London) 430 778-2 (1991 compilation)]

Lorin Maazel

Maazel's marvelous 1968 reading of the Fourth with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca is one of the finest ever committed to disc, almost perfectly balancing structural clarity with lyric accessibility, and sheer visceral power. Few conductors have ever conveyed the opening movement's mood of disquiet and looming existential terror so effectively. Under Maazel's direction the score is realized both as a masterpiece of compositional architecture and a perpetually-intriguing post-romantic soundscape. (I have not heard Maazel's recordings with the Pittsburgh Symphony for Sony.)

[Philips (LP) 9500 143 (1977)]

Sir Colin Davis  

Seldom has there been a more lucid, purposeful performance than Davis' 1977 reading with the Boston Symphony for Philips. Demonstrating an all-too-rare understanding of the spatial aspects of the score, the conductor emphasizes lyricism without sacrificing structural clarity. Though it may lack the sheer dramatic impact of Maazel's performance, the long-line is here illuminated, not merely within each individual movement, but throughout the score as a whole. This approach pays dividends, especially in the slow third movement, which few interpreters have ever rendered with such engaging cogency.

[RCA (Red Seal) 09026-68183-2 (1996)] 

By contrast, Davis 1996 reading with the London Symphony for RCA is bewildering to say the least. More adventuresome but, to my ears, far-less musical than the 1977 Philips recording, Davis seems obsessed with spatial gimmickry and non-essential details of orchestration, such as the placement of the muted distantamento brass choir, or the use of chimes, glockenspiel, or both in the finale. This later reading strikes me as either the work of a genius or a mad man, and I have yet to decide which.

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