In the next three seasons, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra will be celebrating an annual Sibelius Festival. The first of the three events has commenced with beloved Finnish conductor Jukka Pekka Saraste at the helm. The orchestra gives several concerts and late-night events during the festival, all centred around Sibelius’ music and Finnish culture.
This kind of focus is a bold move for any orchestra. Sibelius’ music is not as popular as that of some of his contemporaries, from Shostakovich and Rachmaninov to Gershwin and other popular composers of the 20th century. The music of Sibelius has a distinctly Nordic flair, a melodic structure that is completely unlike anything ever written before or after. In this sense, Sibelius is close to Bruckner: he develops a completely unique manner of composing.
That manner of composition comes out in the first piece of the evening, one of Sibelius’ great classics. His early tone poem Finlandia was written when he was still very much enveloped in Finnish nationalism and opposition against the Russian neighbours. The orchestra is large, with a good number of violins, four horns, trombones, three trumpets and eight double basses. The melodic structure of this piece is fairly romantics, with characteristic Finnish melodies weaving in and out of various instrument groups. But some other typical Sibelius-traits are also already visible, for example how the high-points of the music are always subued and never fully realised. The listener is never allowed to fully celebrate the wonderful climaxes, since they are quickly replaced with something new and exciting. Particularly the percussion section does a wonderful job in this piece.
The other piece in the first half features the star guest soloist of the evening: the eccentric Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. He is performing Sibelius’ Humoresques, a relatively unknown piece by the Finnish master. Usually, the famous Violin Concerto is the Sibelius for violin and orchestra big orchestra which the big orchestras perform. Tonight, Kuusisto holds a fantastic plea for the lesser-known Humoresques. They are slightly lesser-known, but really for no obvious reason. The pieces are short, set for small orchestra and (as the title suggests) wonderfully humorous, in that delicate, light and understated Finnish way.
Particularly the Second, Fourth and Fifth of the pieces stand out. The fifth features some mind-bending technique on Kuusisto’s part, where he demands the violinist play an entire passage in flagolee. That is a difficult technical feat, even for the most experiences and well-practiced master musician. The fourth features an amusing Finnish jig, which is celebrated by Kuusisto with a particularly Finnish way of playing: He uses his violin’s sound to the fullest, but not through his bowing. His bowing is sparse, he often only uses the top third of the bow, rather than going for the full bow and the following maximum romantic effect. Kuusisto seeks to convince the listener through a different way of making music. We hear this particularly during his encore, when he plays a native Finnish melody, clearly a dancing tune. The music does not start dancing on stage, but rather floats in the air, as though drawn by a French impressionist painter. Kuusisto also shows off this style of music in the second of the humoresque pieces, but in a slower variation. Here, the music truly only floats in the air, because there is little to sustain it. This subdued music making creates enchanting effects at the end of the slow pieces, where a thoughtful silence fills the room.
Finally, Saraste conducts Sibelius’ Symphony No.1 in e-minor. Similarly to Finlandia, this work is also filled with romantic vision. Saraste and the orchestra fill all four movements with a sportive spirit, never lose touch with the music. The first movement is features a similar romantic seriousness as with Finlandia, but the orchestration is features more excitement, with a celebration of the themes in the woodwinds, particularly the opening clarinet solo. Throughout the second movement, I notice the spectacular balancing which Saraste achieves in the orchestra. The second movement of the first symphony is not as much of a slow movement as it is in most other movements. It features lively textures, particularly in the strings: Here Saraste uses the sound of the hall to bring about a light, almost playful quality that never weighs the music down. This is also because he affords more than enough room for the woodwind section to showcase its melodic work.
The scherzo reminds of a Stravinsky-ballet in its forceful quality and solistic use of the timpani. The timpanist has a lot of work to do in this movement, combined with percussionist textures in the strings. Saraste brings the strings into the forefront and celebrates the movement’s rhythmic. Finally, the fourth movement brings many of the influences of the previous three movements together: The forceful nature of the third, the playful transparency of the second and the almost Brucknerian brass chorals that feature in both first and second movement. A grand finale rolls around, which Sibelius ends on a subdued pizzicato accompanied by an e-minor chord in the woodwinds. Ever the subdued and incredibly beautiful Scandinavian. Yannik Eisenaecher 17th May 2019
Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics