Bard Music Festival 2011: Jean Sibelius and his World
Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors
Daniel M. Grimley, Scholar in Residence
Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director
Raissa St. Pierre, Associate Director
As my years of attending the Bard Music Festival accrue, I’ve become accustomed to noticing a substantial group of familiar faces that are always there, year after year. Last year I was absent, following an opportunity to visit the Edinburgh Festival I couldn’t pass up, although Alban Berg holds a great appeal [Reviewed in the Berkshire Review by Larry Wallach: Part I, Part II] and fascination for me, and I regretted it, to a degree. The monster-sized haggis of disparate offerings—in spite of a stated festival theme—could not make up for the precisely focused enlightenment of the Bard weekends…although I’m immensely grateful for the magnificent Idomeneo Sir Roger Norrington conducted in Usher Hall…
One shouldn’t let anything get in the way of a Bard Music Festival—and the surrounding Summerscape opera, play, and dance performances, etc., least of all one’s preconceptions about composers. In one case only, Prokofiev (Bard Festival 2008), I approached the Festival with thoughts of taking a mildly rebarbative medicine, but I soon learned how wrong I was, thanks to the Russophile enthusiasm of my friend, Robert Kurilla, who has written about Prokofiev in the Review, and, of course, the lectures and programs of the Festival itself. In Prokofiev’s case the problem was that his best known works give an extremely limited, really inaccurate, idea of him and that his best work is little-known and rather challenging.
Sibelius is also misunderstood for reasons that are similar, but also different. During his lifetime, and especially after he stopped composing, there was a sharp controversy about his work: some recognized it as great music—and some of it was popular with audiences—while others thought it superficial and old-fashioned. Today, he is best known for a handful of compositions—the Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto, Finlandia, Valse Triste, and perhaps a couple of other tone poems and the Fifth Symphony—and the rest of his work is rarely played in the concert hall, although it is not nearly as obscure as Prokofiev’s Second and Third Symphonies or his wrenching opera, The Fiery Angel. It isn’t hard to compensate for the omissions of orchestral programming with a variety of excellent recordings, above all Sir Colin Davis’. It is typical that the most influential and vitriolic of Sibelius’ critics, Theodor W. Adorno, concentrated his venom on Valse Triste, a pot-boiler Sibelius himself all but disowned. Even avowed devotees of Sibelius’ music continue to argue about whether he was an innovative or a conservative composer. From another point of view, Sibelius could be seen as the rugged Northern individualist who followed none of the obvious paths; on the other hand, he composed throughout his career music that reflected the folk traditions and the spirit of his own nation. Then there is Sibelius’ cultural milieu. In spite of the popularity of Finnish musicians and conductors and the fame of Finnish architecture and design, the culture and history of Finland during Sibelius’ very long lifetime remain little understood by most of us outsiders.
Weekend I, August 12-14: Imagining Finland
In Sibelius’ case, the Bard Festival answered some of these questions surprisingly readily—more questions than is usual at this probing event. Of course we left with a good many questions as well, which is less surprising. Amidst this intense stimulus, we came away, once again steeped in the kind of conscious listening the Festival promotes. This means not only the close listening favored by excellent live performances in superb acoustics, or the other sort, stimulated by hearing the work of a familiar major composer along with rarely heard contemporaries, who may or may not have shared his purposes and methods, but listening with an awareness of the composer’s personality and history, and of his relations with his age and the people of his country and the world. The popular notion of the composer as a quasi-otherworldly being who has little if any connection with his environment is a myth. Like everyone else, composers read the newspapers, have friends and opponents, vote, eat and drink. An especially strong teaching moment emerged in Byron Adams’ introductory lecture to the concert entitled Nordic Purity, Aryan Fantasies, and Music, in which he castigated certain Finnish composers, most notably the musically forgettable Yrjö Kilpinen, who was a Nazi sympathizer, at least partly to further his own ends. Dr. Adams not only reminded us of our shared responsibility towards our society, even if we spend large parts of our days and nights writing music, he reminded us that composers don’t live in a vacuum, and neither does the music they leave behind. In the historical and critical context, the kind of sublime musical experience that lifts us out of daily consciousness must pass through a network of contextual knowledge, which doesn’t mean that the most powerful music-making is a stranger at Bard. On the contrary. The festival audience, hard core and occasional visitor alike, know how to respond to that as well…
…as they did at the opening night’s concert, “Jean Sibelius: National Symbol, International Iconoclast,” which began with Finlandia, or rather an opportunity to sing the famous hymn section, either in English or in Finnish, as we wished, followed by Sibelius’ composition. There followed four movements from Sibelius’ Humoresques for solo violin and orchestra, Op. 87/89, and the Third Symphony. After the break came Luonnotar, Op. 70 and the Fifth Symphony. This was a program that spanned the familiar and the rare, as well as the classic and the Romantic in Sibelius’ work. It not only got the festival off to a grand start, it brought out the key polarities in Sibelius’ creativity. Firstly, in writing overtly nationalistic music for an audience of his countrymen, as well as an international audience, he expressed highly personal, intimate states of mind: the great representative of Finnish culture to the world was in truth a great individualist. Virtually everything he wrote bears the stamp of his personality. Secondly, his musical language embraced grand Romantic gestures, but he often avoided Romantic breadth of development in favor of classical economy, often to the point of abruptness. Thirdly, in relation to his contemporaries, both from the perspective of his time and that of ours, certain of his works can be seen as iconoclastic and forward-thinking, while others seem conservative, even old-fashioned. This final pair of contradictions was represented mostly in the Humoresques.
Armed with the knowledge that Sibelius wrote Finlandia specifically for the last of a series of tableaux vivants presented at a fundraising pageant for the benefit of Finnish journalists, we listened to Leon Botstein’s distanced, objective interpretation of the tone poem with an awareness of its character as an occasional piece rather than as a self-contained, abstract expression of Finnishness. Often music written for one occasion can be recycled for another. (1) Botstein’s usual approach to familiar works towards which the audience’s response might be conditioned by reputation or habit is to apply emotional restraint and to focus on the music itself and how it was put together. This was a lucid, well-proportioned reading with fine, gnarly sounds from the ASO’s lower strings.
The Humoresques are very brief character pieces for solo violin and orchestra. The solo parts call for a certain amount of bravura, full of the composer’s affection for the instrument. (As a youth, he planned to make a career as a violin virtuoso.) Some of the Humoresques seem informal toss-offs, even bon bons, while others recall the more complex music of the Violin Concerto, which, as one of Sibelius’ best known works, has made us accustomed to Sibelius’ violin writing in its fully developed form. The Humoresques, mature works published over fifteen years after the Violin Concerto, have an easy appeal, and it is a pity they haven’t found a place in the repertoire, even as encores. The selection of four played at Bard favored the more sophisticated of them, but they were no doubt examples of the conservative Sibelius. Op. 89d, with its gypsy strains, recalling Brahms’ efforts of many years earlier, hinted at a meretricious quality that could have supported some of the harsh criticisms mentioned above. Henning Kraggerud’s precise, almost steely playing subdued this a good deal, emphasizing Sibelius delight in writing for the violin.
Luonnotar, Op. 70, of 1913, is a mature work of great mystery and power, based on the creation myth at the beginning of the Kalevala, in which the female nature spirit Luonnotar gives birth to the world. As mystical and primeval as the text and the music are, Christiane Libor’s precise control of her bright soprano proved most effective in the work, as she made the shapes of Sibelius’ beautifully irregular phrases exceptionally clear.
Sibelius the classicist is something quite different. In his wonderful Third Symphony the movements are concise and the formal elements within them are clear. Yet the slow movement, Andantino con moto, quasi Allegretto, has its rhapsodic moments, when it wafts away from the dreamy minor-key principal theme. The symphony also has notable Brucknerian moments, and that quasi Allegretto recalls at times Beethoven’s Allegretto in his Seventh Symphony, although, as Leon Botstein in one of the panel discussions generally rightly observed, Sibelius avoids the kind of overt allusions we find in the the symphonies of Schumann, Brahms, and Mahler. In his performance Botstein concentrated on the craft of the symphony, rather than any atmospheric or sentimental effects he might have introduced. Its clarity brought out Sibelius’ spare thematic material and the way he used the development section to expand it, as if he wanted to say as little as possible in the exposition, bearing a great deal in mind to unfold in the development. Much of the unity of a Sibelius symphony comes from his reticence in his expositions and the pertinence of his development sections. Sibelius’ themes are epigrams, which the development sections complete. Botstein allowed all this to proceed without undue emphasis on transitions or other potentially dramatic moments in the score.
With the final work on the program, the Fifth Symphony, as the second most famous of his symphonies, closed the program well into everyone’s comfort zone. Again, it was a sober interpretation, focused on the structure of the symphony. I noticed one peculiar effect, however, after Botstein’s somewhat restrained treatment of the ecstatic multi-rhythmic section at the beginning of the last movement, the climax was displaced to the dissonant final chords of the movement. This made the splendid dissonance especially exciting, but it felt proportionately odd to feel the climax in the closing bars. At the Festival the ASO always seems to need a bit of warming up, even though they’ve played an opera under Maestro Botstein only a few weeks before. The rough bits in this concert were long gone by the second weekend.
The morning symposium, “Why Did He Fall Silent? The Public and the Private Sibelius,” was especially gratifying in view of the vagaries of academic papers, even if they are intended for a larger audience. In past years the festival symposia have not been immune to academic hobby horses of minor relevance and lack of preparation. In this session, chaired by Christopher Gibbs, everyone was on topic and up to the mark, as were all the speakers at the festival. Two of the speakers, Glenda Dawn Goss and Vesa Sirén, are Sibelius specialists of long standing, and the third, Scott Burnham, spoke most pertinently from the perspective of a Beethoven scholar. Sibelius the symphonist was, after all, an heir of Beethoven. It is not my intention to review symposium contributions, nor should I, but Professor Gibbs and his guests deserve special thanks for their tight organization and careful preparation. I have already mentioned in my review of Caramoor’s magnificent performance of Rossini’s William Tell the other famous case of a composer abandoning composing at the height of his powers. Sibelius’s last orchestral work, Tapiola, one of his greatest, was premiered in 1926, when the composer was 60. Except for a few piano works, published in 1929, when he was 63, he composed little after that. He labored with difficulty at an Eighth Symphony, but he eventually gave up and destroyed the manuscript. As for Rossini, the reasons affecting Sibelius were complex. It seems that no one cause predominates over others, although money, it seems, played an important role in both. It is well-known that Sibelius was prone to depression and other conditions, which he self-medicated with alcohol. He enjoyed drinking in any case. One might well assume that this eventually took its toll on his creativity, but it seems not to be the case. Dr. Goss, one of the great authorities on the composer, discussed at length the political and cultural history of Finland from the 1890s through the 1920s. The vibrant creativity of the Young Finland movement at the beginning of this period, which coincided with the opulent turn-of-the-century decadence of Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, vanished after the Great War, when a Socialist parliamentary government rather levelled things out in Finland in favor of the twentieth-century mass laborer. Sibelius felt that there was no longer an audience for his work in Finland. This seems to have amounted to much more than a fear of scant attendance at his premieres, but a deep feeling of isolation. Vesa Sirén, a Helsinki-based journalist, who has published an important book on Sibelius and maintains a Web site about the composer: http://www.sibelius.fi/, observed that the late 1920s were a happy time for Sibelius, his reputation in Finland, England, and the United States were high, and at this time he managed to retire the enormous debt (over $400,000 in contemporary equivalent values at its peak) he had accumulated through life, thanks to Finland’s acceptance of the copyright laws which had long been established in other European countries. He was no longer subject to the financial pressure to finish compositions, to publish them, and to perform them. Conducting his own works had been an unpleasant necessity for him for years, due to his need for money. For a long time, he thought himself the best conductor of his work, but he suffered from terrible nerves before and during performances, as well as a hereditary nervous condition which caused his hands to shake. (Sibelius’ children and grand-children have had it too.) Alcohol consumption mitigates the palsy, as Sibelius and many other sufferers knew, and of course it calmed his nerves. On some occasions he was visibly drunk on the podium. Hence Sibelius’ drinking was largely associated with his conducting duties. Eventually he found that others could conduct his music as well if not better than he, Furtwängler (2) chief among them, and eventually the financial pressure eased. Sirén related that Sibelius’ wife, Aino, found him drinking whisky in the morning, as he was working on his Seventh Symphony, and wrote him an ultimatum. He adored his wife and was, it seems, somewhat dominated by her, and he moderated his consumption. He still had many years of happy tippling ahead of him, but, it seems, nothing like his earlier excesses.
Then there were his struggles with his Eighth Symphony and the related issue of his own perception of himself in the context of the musical world of the late 1920s and early 1930s, by which time he had given up his regular visits to the musical centers outside Finland. This is only a summary of the main points. There was a lot more at play.
This exploration of the end of Sibelius’ activity as a composer was followed by a chamber concert devoted to the context of his beginnings. No Bard Music Festival would be complete without some astonishingly conservative work by a respected contemporary of the central composer, written a generation or more after one might have imagined it to have been written. This year the honor went to Robert Fuchs’ String Trio, Op. 61, No. 1, which was published in 1898. (Sibelius studied with Fuchs in Vienna at the beginning of the decade.) That was only a year after Brahms’ death, but Brahms had moved beyond Fuchs in his chamber music of the 1860s. Fuchs faithfully imitated the safer aspects of Schumann and Brahms’ chamber music of that period, with unimpeachable voice leading and balance of the instruments. His use of the viola to open the first and second movements was especially pleasing. In fact the entire work was pleasing, if infuriatingly bland. In this one could easily understand what Sibelius learned to imitate and to avoid in his teacher’s example. Sibelius had also studied with Alfred Becker in Berlin a couple of years earlier. The brief Adagio religioso for cello and piano, also from 1898, showed rather more temperament than Fuchs’ effort, but still held few surprises. Karl Goldmark (whom the Berkshire Review recently celebrated in our drawing for a Pristine Audio download of Robert Heger’s historic 1930 recording of the Rustic Wedding Symphony.) is the only one of Sibelius’ teachers whose works appear on concert programs today, almost exclusively in the guise of his Violin Concerto, and then only occasionally. His Cello Sonata, Op. 39, from 1892, a year after his pupil’s return to Finland, also seemed a fairly conservative work, reminiscent of Schumann and at one interesting point in the first movement development late Beethoven, although its sweet, abstracted moods were enough to place it in the fin de siècle. The stature of this attractive piece was much enhanced by the playing of Edward Arron, who is as technically impeccable as he is forceful in expression. Jeremy Denk was to have joined him, but he turned out to have been double-booked that day and was replaced by a brave and energetic Daniel del Pino. In addition to the Goldmark and Sibelius’ challenging Piano Quintet, Mr. del Pino also had to take on three chorale prelude arrangements after Bach by Ferruccio Busoni, who befriended Sibelius in those early days. Later on, Sibelius was to separate himself from Busoni, considering him excessively intellectual as a composer.
It was almost shocking to hear Sibelius’ iconoclastic, intensely imagined and felt music in this polite company. In his Seven Songs, Op. 13, written after his return to Finland, when he took up the study of indigenous runic singing, and traveled about Kareli, recording folk songsa—on his wedding trip. In setting these verses by the great early nineteenth century poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Sibelius dropped the neat transitions of his German and Austrian teachers in favor of close attention to the sound and meaning of Runeberg’s—Swedish—words. If a nuance or shift in mood demanded a rough change in the music, he wasn’t afraid of it. If the songs show their abrupt and exotic moments, they are undeniably polished compositions—which the earlier Piano Quintet is not. Sibelius wrote it in 1890, between his study sojourns in Berlin and Vienna. This is rough work and all the more exciting for it, especially in the vivid, energetic performance by Jesse Mills, Carmit Zori, violins, Nichola Cords, viola, Edward Arron, cello, and Daniel del Pino, piano, who was at his very best in this demanding score, and it brought the house down with applause. In this work above all, Sibelius revealed himself as a young Turk from the wild north, who came to the heart of European musical culture as much to shake things up as to learn. The Quintet, with shifts of harmony and mood that were more like violent jumps than transitions and a constant surge of rich textures and burning feelings seemed to break through already ageing classical forms, as if they were flood waters in search of new banks. Sibelius had already begun his symphony with chorus and solo singers, Kullervo, after a section of the Kalevala, in Vienna and finished it in 1892 back in Finland. His teacher Fuchs gave his blessing to what he saw of the sprawling work, and that is surprising.
Kullervo was the principal work on the orchestral program for that evening, called “Kalevala: Myth and the Birth of a Nation,” in which it was combined with Sibelius’ older friend Robert Kajanus’ tone poem, Aino (1885), for orchestra and male chorus, which inspired him to write similar orchestral works based on the Kalevala, beginning with Kullervo and En Saga (1892, rev. 1902), which was not related to any particular episode of the epic, but was intended, according to Sibelius, only to convey a mood. This was not played at the festival, however, which took up this vein with Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, Op. 22, No. 1 (1895, rev. 1897, 1939), performed as usual in the revised version. Even the subtler and more impressionistic revised version shows the impact of Sibelius visit in Bayreuth in 1894. He was overwhelmed by Parsifal, Tristan, and Die Meistersinger, but he got his Wagnerian Rausch under control within a month, and found himself able to declare that he felt closer to Liszt and set himself to studying the Faust Symphony. His assimilation of Wagner is still most obvious in these early works, although his entire oeuvre could not have existed without Wagner, in spite of anti-Wagnerian opinions, which became stronger as he grew older. In fact Lemminkäinen and the Maidens shows Sibelius struggling with Wagnerian models. There are touches of Siegfried and Parsifal, and the climaxes in both versions, although quite different, are Wagnerian. On the other hand, one can hear Sibelius working hard to repress the influence and to find his own way, which he soon succeeded in doing.
Wagnerian elements are strong in Kajanus’ Aino, and so are Lisztian influences, both thematically and in terms of the way the sections of the tone poem are fitted together, but the work also provided Sibelius with a model in its use of male chorus and its solemn introduction. Anyone coming to Kullervo for the first time, as I did, with the more conventional Second Symphony in mind as an early work, will be astonished by its originality and power. The orchestra, men’s chorus, soprano, and baritone work together to tell the grim tale of the hero Kullervo. His tribe had been reduced to his own family alone by a conflict with another. His parents sent Kullervo out to find his lost sister. In his wanderings he met a girl, whom he seduced. After it was too late he discovered that the girl was his sister. Once he had accomplished his revenge on the enemy tribe, he took his own life, falling on his sword, as retribution for the crime of incest. Beginning with daring modal tonalities to evoke Finnish runic tunes, Sibelius extends broad sections of deep melancholy and running figures presaging his later style to evoke the vast spaces of the Finnish plains, and appropriately stark setting for his grim narrative. None of this was lost on the audience, who applauded with terrific enthusiasm.
The chorus, directed by James Bagwell, was magnificent, and Christiane Libor sang with control and warmth. John Hancock, who sang the part of Kullervo, proved effective in conveying his character with gruff ferocity, although the music seemed a challenge for him. Botstein presented the work with a flowing linearity, avoiding stress on dramatic climaxes and transitions in order to express the inexorability of Kullervo’s fate and the starkness of the landscape in which it played out. He wanted all the works on the program to speak for themselves.
Sunday morning brought a program called “White Nights—Dark Mornings: Creativity, Depression, and Addiction.” Leon Botstein conversed with Kay Redfield Jamison, a prominent professor of psychiatry, about modern notions of depression, later interspersed with songs by Sibelius, Grieg, Petersen-Berger, Delius, Alma Mahler, and Hans Pfitzner on poems by such decadents as Strindberg and Dehmel, as well as Runeberg. Musically outstanding were the always wonderful Nicholas Phan and Gustav Djupsjöbacka, an authority on the Scandinavian Lied and Rector of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, who showed, with all the discretion of an accompanist, deep understanding of the settings.
The afternoon concert, “Aurora Borealis: Nature and Music in Finland and Scandinavia,” began with a superb early work by Sibelius, his Six Part-Songs for male chorus, Op. 18, which he composed between 1895 and 1901. Men from the Bard Festival Chorale were led in thoroughly prepared and understood performances of these settings from the Kalevala, collections of Finnish folk songs, and the nineteenth-century poet, Aleksis Kivi, which were all full of color and character. The singers immensely enjoyed singing them under Mr. Bagwell, and the audience loved the result, with uproarious applause. After a perfunctory reading of Sinding’s old salon favorite “The Rustle of Spring” (1896) by the often compelling Melvin Chen, there came one of the glories of the festival, mezzo-soprano Melis Jaatinen’s performance of Grieg’s Haugtussa (1895), accompanied by the infinitely perceptive Professor Djupsjöbacka. This came as a revelation to me, who only knew Kirsten Flagstad’s somewhat statuesque recording from late in her career. Endowed with a lithe, richly colored voice, Ms. Jaatinen entered into each song with a total commitment of her interpretive imagination. Acting out the moods and situations with charming, energetic gestures, she maintained a constant connection with the audience through her glances. Along with a sophisticated penetration into the texts and the music, some of Grieg’s best, she was able to immerse herself in the simple attitudes of the peasant girls or milkmaids who figure in or narrate some of the songs, for example “Blåbaer-Li” (Blueberry Hill). It takes a special gift to bring this kind of artful simplicity off, and she accomplished this most brilliantly. The bright, character-pieces are interspersed with more introverted and darker songs, like “Vond Dag” (Evil Day), which Ms. Jaatinen projected with just the right weight of emotion. Beyond that and her striking appearance, one cannot imagine a more charming ambassador for Finland. I could easily imagine some audience members, especially the men, dreaming of buying a plane ticket.
Another exceptional talent appeared next in Johan Svendsen’s Romance (1881), Harumi Rhodes, best known as second violin in the Daedalus Quartet. In her playing she produced a full, varied tone, with hints of a contralto’s richness. She shaped her phrases with a strong, decisive character, which never detracted from the lyrical beauty of her line. Then Melis Jaatinen returned for a set of songs by Toivo Kuula (1883-1918), a sadly short-lived composer of exceptional stature, who showed a depth of feeling and adventurousness that was entirely worthy of SIbelius himself. The concert closed with Wilhelm Stenhammar’s over-long and over-diligent String Quartet No 4 in A Minor, Op. 25 (1905-09), thoroughly Brahmsian in character. Although it was well-assembled and interesting in the earlier movements, the final variations seemed a pedantic hommage to a truly great composer. It received a superb performance from Sharon Roffman, Harumi Rhodes, violins, Marka Gustavsson viola, and Robert Martin, cello. The thoroughness of their grasp of the piece and the strength of their interaction made it seem as if they played together as a permanent group.
The closing recital of the weekend, “To the Finland Station: Sibelius and Russia” brought back the singers and musicians who had most delighted us earlier in the day, and before. Melis Jaatinen and the cooler temperament of Christiane Libor made for a fascinating combination in a set of Tchaikovsky duets, Op. 46 (1880), accompanied by Gustav Djupsjöbacka. There followed three Runeberg songs by Sibelius, gorgeously sung by Ms. Jaatinen. The earlier concerts had been in Olin Hall, which is bright and immediate. It was interesting and rewarding to hear her voice in the warmer acoustic of Sosnoff. The same quartet who had excelled in the Stenhammer, this time with Ms. Rhodes taking over the first violin, and Jonathan Spitz joining in as a second cello, played a far better piece, Aleksandr Glazunov’s String Quintet in A Major, Op 39 (1891-2), the work is rewarding for the flexibility of the part-writing, its tonal imagination, and winning lyricism. The interaction of the musicians had just the right balance of tension and songful expansion—chamber music at its very best.
After the break there followed Sibelius’ Canzonetta, Op. 62a (1911), arranged in a most peculiar fashion by Igor Stravinsky in 1963 for two clarinets, four horns, harp and double bass. Sibelius originally wrote it as part of incidental music for a play by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnevelt, Kuolema (Death) and scored for string orchestra, and quite affectingly; Stravinsky transformed it into the kind of macabre café music—for the sort of establishment where one might read a newspaper and drink a brandy while waiting to move on to one place or the other. In fact Stravinsky wrote it as a tribute following his being awarded the International Sibelius Prize. Gilles Vonsattel then appeared to play Kyllikki (the name of Lemminkäinnen’s wife in the Kalevala), Op. 41 (1904), something between a suite and a sonatina demanding fluency, lightness, and wit, which Mr. Vonsattel was able to provide most engagingly. Nicholas Phan then returned to sing three songs by Rimsky-Korsakov. Phan’s voice has filled out and darkened most handsomely over the past couple of years, and the Sosnoff acoustic was a splendid place to savor it. He was accompanied by Pei-Yao Wang, who had been doing honorable duty through the earlier programs. To end the concert, Gilles Vonsattel came back, this time with Orion Weiss, who has been gaining an enthusiastic following recently. The two of them made a an eminently compatible pair in Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2, Op. 17 (1900-01), both for their astonishing technique and their ability to stay together in some incredibly difficult fast passage, not only as a matter of correctness, but creating some extraordinary effects of texture and color as well.
Weekend II, August 19-21: Sibelius: Conservative or Modernist?
The weekend began Friday morning with a symposium called, “Architecture, Design, and Finnish Identity.” While this interested me a good deal, it was not possible to attend. While there was a lot left to say about Sibelius himself and his music, above all, about his ideas of form and his methods of handling thematic material, Sibelius is so much bound up with his nation, and he had such a strong connection with the visual arts through his relations through marriage, his friendship with Akseli Gallen-Kallela, and his own broad artistic interests, just as he did with literature, that almost any aspect of Finnish culture could be relevant in one way or another—not to mention the significant role Finland plays in the arts today—as it has since Sibelius’ time.
In fact, festival-goers will have noticed that the program booklet was unusually rich in images. Not only was there a section of magnificent photographs, splendidly reproduced, made in Karelia by I. K. Inha in 1893, when he accompanied Jean and Aino on their wedding trip, there was a rich selection of paintings by Gallen-Kallela, Eero Järnefelt (another of the composer’s brother-in-laws), Pekka Halonen, Magnus Enckell, and other Finnish artists of the time. This is impressive work, and it makes one want to see more. Americans became acquainted with Scandinavian art chiefly through the 1988 exhibition, Northern Light: Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century, which cut a wide swathe over all of Scandinavia, but there has been little since. In fact the Bard program book may actually illustrate more Finnish works than the catalogue to that exhibition. More than anything else, it has demonstrated what a valuable adjunct to the Bard Music Festival or to Summerscape an art exhibition would be. Bard has an excellent facility in its Hessel Museum of Art, which is not far from Olin Hall. There would just have to be time for concert-goers to walk or shuttle over there, perhaps for a guided tour as well as some quality time with the artworks.
Meanwhile, enthusiasts will be happy to know that Gallen-Kallela will receive a major exhibition which will open at the Helsinki Art Museum on September 23. After it closes on January 15, it will travel to the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (February 7-May 6, 2012), and to the Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf (SMKP) (June 1-September 2, 2012). The Musée d’Orsay will offer a series of chamber concerts with music by Sibelius, Merikanto, Kilpinen, Melartin, Madetoja, Kuula, and Sallinen, as well as Grieg, Debussy, and Hahn. In any case, the gentlemen under the spell of Melis Jaatinen will be happy to have an excuse to fly to Helsinki as early as next week!
Apart from these important and compelling artists, the entire Järnefelt family seem interesting, above all in its literary and artistic members, and it would be worthwhile to learn more about them.
The evening concert was entitled, “Nordic Purity, Aryan Fantasies, and Music.” Up until a couple of decades ago, it was considered not only respectable, but interesting to discuss individuals in terms of their national backgrounds, or even racial backgrounds—to observe how the individuals related to the group, both in appearance and in temperament. This came up often in relation to Sibelius since he was known as a nationalist composer, was quite a striking-looking man, and, both in his music and in image, was recognized as a symbol of his country. The idea that nations should be recognized as individual entities and have the right to govern themselves within borders of their own—in part a reaction to Napoleonic imperialism—was crucial in the shaping of modern Europe and flourished in political ideology through the nineteenth into the twentieth century. The considerations which went into defining nations, given the parameters of nineteenth century Wissenschaft and the importance within them of anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, folklore, etc, necessarily touch on matters of racial identity. These subjects range from historically important but now outmoded fields of study, to pseudo-science, to, when one leaves the realm of research and enters that of politics, ideology—not to mention methods of study still pursued today. By the time the long nineteenth century had played itself out certain political parties took up the specifically racial parts of nationalism and used them as part of their platforms, both to gather votes by appealing to popular prejudices and to further their own views on the subject. Tragically, the most deleterious of these movements came to power in Germany a few years after Sibelius gave up composing and set to work on making their theories real through oppression, mass murder, and war. In the smaller, less powerful nations within Germany’s radius of expansion, some perceived the NSDAP and their racial doctrines as a threat, while others found them appealing and beneficial to the national ideals of their own countries, as well as their own political agendas, and yet others found them unfortunate but tolerable, and so forth, through countless variations.
In this concert music which had points of connection of various sorts with this stream was played, in order to illustrate the situation in Finland and specifically Sibelius’ own position, or lack of one. Sibelius himself was not keenly interested in politics. By the time the ideology of the Third Reich reached a point where it could affect him, he was not longer composing, no longer travelling outside Finland, and living as a cultural and national symbol on his rural land. He never encouraged the Nazis to use him for their own ends, but he never took up active or vocal opposition. It is worth pointing out that his connection with Germany was hardly superficial, since he had received education there and had conducted there regularly since then. The performance of his works was very much bound up with German orchestras, and his favorite interpreter of his work was Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was living and conducting his work in Germany under extremely difficult circumstances.
Of the works performed, Howard Hanson’s Pastorale, Op. 38 for oboe and piano, reflected Hanson’s preoccupation with his own Scandinavian background. The opening movement of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, arranged for piano duet, a work Sibelius had heard during his time as a student in Vienna. Bruckner had both influenced Sibelius significantly and, later, became Hitler’s favorite composer, and seen as embodying and Aryan musical ideal. Sibelius’ Skogsrået (Wood Nymph), OP 15 (1894), a folkloric poem by Rydberg, which reflected a fear of alien demons, was played in its recitation version. After the intermission, music by three unsavory characters, the American, Mrs Amy Beach, the Nazi sympathizer Irjö Kilpinen, and a compromiser, Kurt Atterberg. The proceedings were brightened not only by Byron Adams’ passionate introductory lecture, but by the brilliant playing of Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss, as well as the great Daedalus Quartet in full force. Since Weiss and Polonsky are husband and wife, I couldn’t help wondering if they spend many evenings at home playing Bruckner symphonies as a married couple. If more spent their evenings in this fashion, there might be fewer divorces.
“From the Nordic Folk” was the title of the Saturday morning concert, which dealt with folk music and the interest it aroused both as forms and as tunes among classical composers from Grieg through Bartók. Four selections were played from Grieg’s Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances), Op. 72 (1902-03) and Sibelius’ Six Finnish Folk Songs (1903-04). A specialist in folk music from Finland, Piia Kleemola, a truly remarkable musician, was on hand to play the original versions of the dances and songs, as they have been gathered by more scholarly researchers than Grieg or Sibelius. It was fascinating to hear the folk music played in traditional tunings, arrangements, and rhythms, especially with Ms. Kleemola’s sensitivity and precision . In every case they were more interesting and enjoyable than the versions set by the great composers. One could here how Grieg was attempting to transcribe what he heard from the peasant fiddler as accurately as he could, but his instinct was to translate the sounds into the language of the nineteenth century conservatory and the technique of a classically trained violinist. Ms. Kleemola continued in this vein with two settings by the excellent Toivo Kuula from Five Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 3a (1906). I cannot emphasize enough that her honest playing was one of the high points of the festival. This was followed by Bartók’s Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (1914-18): Old Dance Tunes, Nos. 7-15, Percy Grainger’s La Scandinavie for Cello and Piano (1902), Three Szymanowski Marzurkas, Op. 50 (1924-26), and La Vallée des Cloches, from Miroirs (1904-05) by Ravel. Anna Polonsky, Orion Weiss, Pei-Yao Wang, and Sophie Shao played these all with spirit and polish.
“Finnish Modern” on Saturday afternoon put an important work of Sibelius, his Quartet in D Minor, Op. 56 (1909-10), “Voces Intimae,” magnificently played by the Daedalus Quartet, in the context of three important Finnish modernist composers, who were between ten and twenty years younger than Sibelius.
Leevi Madetoja (1887-1948) was in fact a pupil of Sibelius. He then moved on to Paris, where he studied with Vincent D’Indy and later to Vienna, where he studied with the aforementioned Robert Fuchs, but, as he developed, he gravitated more towards Paris and French music. He combined this with an interest in the folk traditions of his native Ostrobothnia. In Syksy (Autumn, 1930), a song-cycle based on settings of his wife’s poetry, we can hear him combining the feeling of folk music and its connection to nature with the wistful melancholy that was so nicely cultivated in France. (Madetoja’s wife was in fact a prominent poet, known by the name L Onerva.) The songs are attractively melodic, with interesting, unexpected progressions in the accompaniment. The qualities of the cycle did not really come through in the performance, as the singer, soprano Marguerite Krull, clung to a conventionally over-emotive manner, both in phrasing and in gesture, which had little to do with the songs themselves and proved rather off-putting.
Aare Merikanto (1893-1958) was the son of the composer, conductor, and critic Oskar Merikanto, Sibelius’ friend, whom we have seen passed out drunk on the table in Gallen-Kallela’s painting, Symposium. Aare developed in an international milieu, studying with Erkki Melartin in Helsinki, Max Reger in Leipzig and with Sergei Vasilienko at the Moscow Conservatory. His “Schott” Concerto (1924) was the most ambitiously avant-garde work on the program, pungent in harmony and neo-classically modern in sound, with its concerto grosso-like grouping of solo violin, clarinet, and horn against a string sextet. It acquired its name from winning a joint first prize in a competition sponsored by the music publisher Schott, together with Paul Dessau, Ernst Toch, and Aleksandr Tscherepnin. After a mysterious introduction, the work was rich in dramatic contrasts, biting gestures, along with lyrical and playful sections. Merikanto’s style continued in an avant-garde vein through the 1920s and early 1930s, and he made a point of writing challenging music, which proved quite unpopular with the conservative Finnish critics and public. He was continually frustrated by his inability to get works performed. In the mid 1930s, he gave up and adopted a “National Romantic” that was easier for audiences to digest. While he held prestigious positions at the Sibelius Academy and trained a whole generation of Finnish composers, he was an embittered man, who destroyed many of his earlier scores. Only after 1950 did he enliven his writing with some of his earlier daring. He wrote large-scale orchestral works as well as operas. Among these, Juha, which had failed to find a performance in 1922, was finally performed after Merikanto’s death, and has since been recognized as the greatest Finnish opera. His struggles with the public in the 1920s may give us some insight into the problems Sibelius, although a more conservative composer who enjoyed the benefit of a mature and adulatory reputation, was up against in the years before he stopped publishing music.
Erkki Melartin’s (1875-1937) String Trio, Op. 133 (1926-27) was, as Daniel M. Grimley observed in his program note, beautifully balanced and voiced. Violin, viola, and cello all seemed in their ideal registers and well situated to meet and interact with ease. (It is not surprising that he, like Madetoja, was a student of Robert Fuchs, whose similarly lucid string trio we heard the previous week.) From this pleasing middle ground they could venture out into greater range of colors: harmonics, bowing sul ponticello, pizzicato, creating a free, open feeling rather than aggressive or violent moods, although there is plenty of energetic tension to propel the music on its way. The slow movement, a dignified Andante funebre, gave the work emotional gravity, counteracting the airy effect of the diatonic passages, which were redolent of Melartin’s French contemporaries.
The ASO returned Saturday evening at the height of their powers in “The Heritage of Symbolism”—a rich program, which included two more tone poems from Sibelius’ Kalevala set, Op. 22, including the most famous of them, No. 2 The Swan of Tuonela (1895, rev. 1898, 1900) and No. 4 Lemminkäinen’s Return (1895, rev. 1898, 1900), Väino Räitio’s Joutsnet (The Swans), Op. 15 (1919), Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony in A Minor, Op. 63 (1911), his tone poem The Oceanides, Op. 73 (1914), and Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, Sinfonia espansiva (1910-11). As Peter Laki observed in his enlightening program note, the program deals not only with Symbolism, which in the decades surrounding 1900 informed poets’, painters’, and composers’ approach to myth all over Europe, from France to Russia, but also with the debate over program music vs. absolute music. While the dichotomy remained doctrinally strong in Germany, Sibelius had no problem working in both forms. The narrative and poetic organization of his tone poems is as effective as his treatment of symphonic form, which was highly individual. Critics of his symphonies have tended to be equally harsh on his tone poems, perhaps harboring a low opinion of the form in general. His admirers on the other hand consider him as both a true heir of Beethoven and the equal of his contemporary, Debussy, in bringing the tone poem to its height of expression. It was this latter side of Sibelius’ work that most impressed Wilhelm Furtwängler, who called him “the last survivor of the great impressionists, of the Strausses, the Debussys, the Regers, the Ravels. He enabled Nordic man to find himself by speaking the tongue of the entire North itself.”
In this and the next (and final) orchestral concert Leon Botstein seemed to have taken hold of a direct track into the spirit of a wide variety of music, not only that of Sibelius, but that of his psychic opposite, Nielsen, and in that final concert a variety of younger composers of different nationalities who learned something of Sibelius’ language. The ASO played with full confidence, unanimous ensemble, and rich tone, and Botstein seemed to be leading them through the humane meaning of the scores than their construction. In Tuonela, we felt the desolation of the underworld. Raino’s Swans was an interesting and evocative work. The mysterious logic of the Fourth came through, and so did its chilling perspective of the Abyss. The rich string tone and fine solo playing in the orchestra did full justice to Sibelius’ magnificent score. Botstein was especially drawn to the Cimmerian side of The Oceanides. The playfulness of the winds at the beginning was subdued in favor of the threatening power of the sea. As at the opening concert we found ourselves in the midst of Sibelius at his greatest in what anyone has to admit was his true medium, the orchestra. If the Sibelian works on the program belonged to the night, Nielsen’s Fourth played out entirely in the daylight, even as the first movement exposition, which maintains f increasing to ff and finally to fff over an incredibly long period, makes clear. Botstein was in his element with Nielsen’s lucid counterpoint and brilliant contrasts of instrumental sections. All this came across splendidly in the Sosnoff acoustic and Botstein keeping the right balances throughout without seeming to have to make constant adjustments—or for that matter any at all. Yulia van Doren, who has been warmly praised in the Berkshire Review for her portrayal of the shepherdess Dorinda in Handel’s Orlando—and several earlier efforts as well—made a welcome, if brief and wordless appearance at the end of the slow movement, together with baritone Tyler Duncan. The ASO seemed to enjoy the workout as well. I’ve never heard anyone question whether Nielsen made a wonderful thing in his Fourth Symphony, and this performance bore it out all the way. The audience was rightly thrilled with the Nielsen and the entire evening. This was Bard at its best.
Sunday began with the second panel discussion, “Sibelius and the Twentieth Century,” moderated by Ian Buruma, with Leon Botstein, Tomi Mäkelä, and Jann Pasler, a specialist in French music and culture in the twentieth century, is the author of Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France (2009) among other titles. Prof. Mäkelä, who has pursue his career primarily in Germany, was written widely on Finnish and German music, as well as modernism in general, including a project on musical exiles in Los Angeles. His recent book, published in German as Jean Sibelius: Poesie in der Luft (2007), has been highly praised, and its imminent publication in English translation by Boydell and Brewer has been eagerly awaited.
Composer Richard Wilson introduced the early afternoon concert, “Nostalgia and the Challenge of Modernity” with his customary intelligence and wit, playing his musical illustrations on the piano with a sensitivity which brought one into the heart of the music, even if it was only a few bars. This was especially notable in the Five Esquisses, Op. 114 (1929), Sibelius’ last published work, which he wrote for an American publisher, who rejected the score on delivery. After hearing a few fragments, as played by Prof. Wilson, we were expecting something very beautiful in them, but Melvin Chen’s playing of them was as perfunctory and dry as the rest of his contributions to the festival. Clearly Sibelius is not his composer…and I’ve noticed that Chen is at his best—which is very much worth hearing—in large-scale works with imposing technical challenges. He also accompanied Eric Wyrick in the Sonatina in E Major for violin and piano, Op. 80 (1916) and a recitation piece, Enn ensamt skidspår (The lonely Ski Trail, 1925). There followed another extremely ripe late Romantic work by Ottorino Respighi, Il tramonto (Sunset, 1914), a setting for soprano and string quartet of Shelley’s poem in an eloquent Italian translation by Roberto Ascoli. The work proved surprisingly rewarding for Respighi, showing a keen sensitivity to the text and infusing it with a seductive D’Annunzian perfume, as if he were thinking of the better-known poet and translator of Shelley, Adolfo de Bosis, D’Annunzio’s friend. Jennifer Johnson Cano did it justice with her radiant voice and vivid inflection. The concert closed with a very late work by Richard Strauss, Sonatina No. 1, “Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden,” (1943), a nostaglic, classicizing work for a chamber group of sixteen winds and strings, here conducted by Leon Botstein. Strauss, a year older than Sibelius, claimed that he wrote it to keep his hand in, but in fact he had just finished his final opera, Capriccio, and still had his great Metamorphoses ahead of him.
The final event of the festival, the traditional closing orchestral concert was called “Silence and Influence.” Apart from the attractive, but slight piano suite mentioned above, Sibelius closed his career with two of his greatest orchestral works, the Seventh Symphony (1923) and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), both of which formed the Sibelian centerpiece of this program, finishing the story begun by the previous evening’s concert. They were accompanied by two important symphonies which bore the influence of Sibelius, one by an American, Samuel Barber, and the other by an Englishman, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Both the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola (“Where the Forest-God Dwells”) are marvels of compressed form. The symphony is a single-movement work with a unified thematic cluster which nonetheless follows something like the units of tempo and mood traditionally observed in the four movements of a classical symphony, most likely the fruit of his assiduous study of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. Tapiola, on the other hand, is a tone poem, which has been called a symphony by some authorities, including Byron Adams. In its exhaustive exploration of its theme and the range of tonalities and mood, Tapiola is indeed a symphony—an entirely modern one, as the composer, unfolding his various thematic motifs and their psychic implications, leads the listener to a state of extreme despair, and finally terror. The closing B major chords, with their powerful, but eternally peaceful sense of resolution, are almost as terrifying as rapid outburst, the manifestation of the forest god, that precedes them. The chords, called an Amen by Tovey, are as such a leave-taking from the god, who cannot be endured for long. Their effect is so powerful that it is hard not to take them as Sibelius’ own valediction to his creative Genius, in the ancient sense.
Botstein, while following his basic principles of clarity and balance to let the score speak for itself, produced, as he did the previous evening, a rich string sound and eloquent playing from the ASO. Their deeply moving eloquence of the Seventh and Tapiola brought the festival to its climax, but it sacrificed none of the literal adherence to the score of the first weekend. He gave much attention to pauses and rests and the space around Sibelius’ expressive phrases, and we were still paying attention to the marvellous details of Sibelius’ writing.
Samuel Barber wrote his First Symphony, Op. 9, in 1936, when Sibelius was at the height of his popularity in the United States. Toscanini, Stokowski, Rodzinski, and above all Koussevitzky were all advocates of his music. In his note, Adams quotes Howard Pollack, who noted eight performances of works by Sibelius in one week of November, 1933. The symphony is a textbook example of American symphonism at its height, at a time when American composers believed that a symphony was the best thing a composer could do. And Sibelius was a tutelary presence over most of the great American symphonies of the period, not only Barber’s First, but classics by Harris, Hanson, Mennin, et. al. Barber clearly learned something of Sibelius’ organic form to pull together his characteristic American intellectualism, counterpoint, and the bright brass sounds that would have nicely suited the Italian orchestra that played its premiere in the Augusteo in Rome. Nonetheless, the Romans found the work too dark and Nordic. As in the Nielsen the previous evening, the bright (to my ears) sonorities, compelling textures, and rich counterpoint came naturally to Maestro Botstein, who let Barber’s well-considered scoring come through without undue manipulation, and of course it was a joy to hear such a work in such splendid acoustics! The result could not have been better.
He took a similar approach for Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, and given the composer’s particular handling of Sibelian counterpoint—more academic than Sibelius, less academic than the American—it worked very well. Clarity and good balance are important in Vaughan Williams. Botstein didn’t dwell on the dreamier aspects of Vaughan Williams’ orchestration—which remains a speciality of English conductors. His sense of proportion and attention to the tight structure of the work were enough to carry the day. The Fifth is not the only work of Vaughan Williams to show the influence of Sibelius, but he took the liberty to dedicate it to Sibelius without asking his permission, a necessity in wartime conditions, since Finland had declared itself for Germany—understandable, since the alternative was the Finns’ traditional oppressor, Russia. The Sibelian influence is particularly apparent in the first movement. Yet Vaughan Williams never compromised his Englishness or his own personality as a composer, and, adhering to the traditional independence of the four symphonic movements, he showed little interest in Sibelius’ formal experiments.
As keenly as Sibelius was admired in the United States, he was even more appreciated in England—one would like to think more intelligently appreciated, since, as Byron Adams relates in his excellent essay in the Bard Festival collection, Sibelius’ great and difficult Fourth Symphony made the fundamental impression—at least on musicians and critics. I have mentioned Sir Colin Davis as an important figure in the survival of Sibelius’ legacy. In fact all of the major English conductors of the previous generation were champions of the composer and outstanding interpreters of his work, all of them: Boult, Sargent, and Barbirolli. (Look for Boult’s Tapiola from the 1950s!) In this Sir Colin has mainly been carrying on the tradition of his immediate predecessors, as have Handley and Hickox.
The concert and the festival closed—as is fitting—with Sibelius’ own music, his sublime Seventh Symphony, again performed with magnificent clarity and shaping by the ASO under Botstein.
I left the hall, thrilled by the rich concert, but also rather sad that the Bard Music Festival had come to a close. Reflecting on the two weekends in following days I realized that I came away with a concept of Sibelius as a consummate professional, a composer to whom craft and the integrity of the individual work came first. He took pains to avoid what he viewed as overworked clichés or as compositional elements which had been fully developed by the previous generation, for example transitional passages, so important in Wagner’s music dramas or for Brahms and Bruckner, who was actually one of his models. It may have been impossible for Sibelius not to be a Wagnerian, no matter how much à contre coeur, but he was most definitely not a Brahmsian. His treatment of symphonic form and of thematic development—as original as it was—owed the most to Beethoven, and it is correct to regard him as Beethoven’s heir. The moodiness of his compositions was not self-expression or self-indulgence. His inner life was the foundation of his art, but he pursued his art for its own sake, altough his emotions were closely connected with this process, and I rather think that it cost him dearly. In Tapiola he may have reached his limit, and his leave-taking with the forest god seems like a farewell to the creative elementals with whom he worked. Unlike his favorite conductor—also an important composer in his own right—Wilhelm Furtwängler, he chose to survive.
Oh yes, one further note…if you happen to have saved the phrase “as Theodor W. Adorno said” as automatic text in your word processor, this may be a good time to erase it.
(1) The original version of Finlandia, Finland Awakes, as it was written for the Press Celebrations, is both terrifically effective as occasional music and much weaker than the familiar concert piece. Our San Francisco correspondent, Steven Kruger has informed me that the hymn made an appearance at the 9/11 ceremonies in lower Manhattan. Presumably this is the hymnal version, sung to a devotional text other than the patriotic verses we sang at the Fisher Center. Although Sibelius wrote several excellent funereal pieces, which might have been more appropriate, this gives us a sense of the one-size-fits-all character of a good hymn tune of a properly elevating character, and, I suppose, if a piece was written as occasional music, it stays occasional music. We don’t consider Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or Liszt’s Faust Symphony to be occasional music. Hence, when the latter was played on the radio under the Third Reich as a prelude to announcements of Reichswehr victories and the former is adopted as the anthem of the EU, it may seem inappropriate or even offensive, whether the cause be considered good or bad in retrospect.
(2) Our only recorded legacy of this unfortunately consists of only two great live recordings of the Violin Concerto and En Saga.