Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sibelius at Sixes and Sevens

In the nineteen-thirties Walter Legge, the great record producer, ran the Sibelius society, a collection of albums containing six of seven 78 records, not obtainable singly. He had occasion to visit Sibelius in his Finnish home, Järvenpåå, the composer was then in his seventies, Legge forty years younger; it was the young man's first encounter with the old master; he was on his best behaviour. Business was discussed, drinks were served, cigars smoked.

Legge dared to ask a question: "at the time of the composition of the sixth and seventh symphonies, had Sibelius been studying the works of Italian masters like Palestrina? Sibelius rose abruptly and disappeared into the garden, pausing only to pick up a hunting knife from a stand. Legge went to the window and saw Sibelius by a fruit tree, slashing at it with the knife. Legge went into the garden and apologised for his question. Sibelius said to him: "Finnish plumbing being what it is, if you want to pee before you go, do it out here".

Fast forward seventeen years. Schwarkopf (Mrs Legge) was in Helsingfors (Strauss Four Last Songs performance). Legge rang the composer: would a visit be welcome?" Yes.

Sibelius received them in his grand seigneur manner: "I seem to remember that you prefer the Mumm marque of champagne …Romeo y Julia cigars and, the answer to your previous question is, yes."

Since Pekka Saraste had just conducted the two symphonies in question. I went backstage to tell the conductor the above story. (He anticipated the punch-line). The BBCSO had played well for him; the sixth came out rather more forcefully than it did under Beecham's delicate handling; the seventh like the masterly monolith that it is. I haven't heard either symphony for some years and was refreshed and stimulated by the noble trombone theme that rises from the depth like the Krakenwake, by the sudden flurries of string semiquavers, the plangent wind statements, the use of augmented fourths, added sixths, the sudden silences, the brass chords that bulge from piano to forte, the almost sentimental phrases that are turned as austere as Easter Island stones, and the archaic use of modes.

The first half of the programme turned from Finland to the other country with which it shares linguistic roots, Hungary. The programme began with the Dance Suite that Bartok (forty-two years old at the time) composed on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda Pesth in 1923. The pattern begins with woodwind and brass in rhythmic, masculine style, notes mostly around and below middle C; with contrasting string sections in longer notes, high and lyrical. It sounds for all the world like a sketch for the Concerto for Orchestra that came some twenty years later.

Before the interval came …concertante… a rather rare longer work, 2003, by György Kurtag (born 1926). Like Mozart's famous work, Kurtag's features violin and viola soloists. But these soloists do not, like the earlier work, have grateful, lyrical or virtuoso lines to sing. The later work is rather brittle, even scratchy. Even the programme-notes conceded that "everything seems uncertain". The soloist were Hiromi Tuchi and Ken Hakii.

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