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Grappling with Sibelius in China

by Andrew Mellor

“Could a certain distance from Western symphonic thought have contributed to the surprising qualities of the performances I heard in China?” Andrew Mellor reviews performances of Sibelius’s Symphonies Nos 2 and 5 in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

If you’re a classical music enthusiast with more than a passing interest in Finland, the chances are Sibelius registers pretty strongly on your musical radar. But the oneness we feel with the composer in the Nordic countries, Britain and America is to some degree a privilege of cultural proximity and musical DNA.

It has taken until 2019 for a French orchestra to issue a recorded cycle of the composer’s symphonies. We mustn’t insult the likes of France, Germany and Italy by claiming they don’t ‘get’ Sibelius. But we can point to the fundamental differences in his symphonic music’s construction to explain why, in some instances, orchestras in those territories have approached it with a degree more hesitation and have sometimes – as even Sir Simon Rattle has admitted – struggled with it.

I audited the Orchestre de Paris’s new recordings of the symphonies earlier this year and the results, though frequently thrilling, weren’t altogether surprising (my detailed analysis has been published by Gramophone here). On the plus side, the performances emphasize the fact that when it came to nineteenth and twentieth-century Romanticism in mainland Europe, Sibelius was determined to be part of the discourse. Paavo Järvi and his orchestra bring to the symphonies the sort of orchestral panache, sheen and magnificence the composer dreamed of.

But whether he knew it or not – and that’s surely a sliding scale – Sibelius was writing music that operated very differently, on the page, to that of his European counterparts. In the symphonies, rhythmic displacement and ‘ragging’ of the beat is a vital element, even while it takes places underneath an apparently smooth and clear line. Sibelius’s dabbling in Spectralism means his orchestration often borders on the structural. Figuration (and there is lots) is both accompaniment and material; it exists in a hinterland where it can recede into the former or emerge into the latter at any moment.

As rousing as it is to hear an orchestra from outside the traditional heartland playing these magnificent and mostly indestructible works, those areas mentioned are some in which the Orchestre de Paris audibly struggles on its new recordings. As I was listening to its performances for perhaps the fifth time, I was on the way to China to investigate some logistical aspects of the country’s burgeoning musical infrastructure. There was live Sibelius waiting for me in both Shanghai and Guangzhou.




The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra – 140 years old this season – presented Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 at a concert on 13 January conducted by Li Xincao. Sibelius is not a regular part of the SSO’s diet, I was told by Doug He, the orchestra’s Vice President. Sometimes the Violin Concerto crops up in a season. There might even be, as in this season, a symphony included. But there was zero Sibelius in the season before. Like the Orchestre de Paris, however, this is a flexible modern symphony orchestra with strength in all sections and high levels of discipline.

Li Xincao and the SSO’s Sibelius was exceptional, perhaps because it grasped some of the basic principles mentioned above. It appeared to take rhythm as a starting point, understanding that a focus on the rhythmic devices presented from the very start of the score will allow those devices to take on the kinetic significance they need. Intentionally or otherwise, the orchestra spoke relatively plainly but still with a sure sense of colour (the solo trumpet playing was deliciously peaty). The performance acknowledged the strain in the music, as in the final movement when building disquiet metamorphoses into natural release.

Phrasing was a point of interest. Despite the plain-speaking qualities described, Xincao did step in to sculpt some of Sibelius’s melodic material in a more ostentatious way than Paavo Järvi does on his Paris recordings (though Xincao was far more cautious with portamento than his Estonian colleague). In the ‘big tune’ of Sibelius’s finale, Xincao eased off the gas at the mid point, so that the re-harmonized theme was lit very differently. The Sibelius Police might have issued a caution had they heard that. But as a symptom of Xincao’s insistence on pointing-up the modulations, it seemed like a price worth paying. In the moment, it sent a shiver up the spine. 

2019 Ymcg So
The YMCG Symphony Orchestra. Photo by 2016-2019 Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra.

From Shanghai, I travelled south to the port city of Ghanzghou, where an academy convened by Yo-Yo Ma and conductor Long Yu was preparing for a performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony under Michael Stern. Youth Music Culture Guangdong (YMCG) is not so much an orchestral training progamme as a liberal arts finishing school for musicians – an arena in which they are encouraged to find their own voices, consider the true meaning of performance and think deeply about aspects of cross-cultural communication. 

Everything about this situation was different to that in Shanghai: an orchestra of relatively inexperienced musicians finding its feet over a matter of days; a symphony which mines deeper into the organic methods Sibelius had adumbrated in the Second (though that process of disquiet giving way to release is common to both). “To jump in to a piece which has so much rhythmic, harmonic and structural complexity – and such a need for integration – is not easy at all,” Stern confided in me between rehearsals.

That point is what made YMCG Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius – and it’s journey to Sibelius – so illuminating. With little time to focus on the sort of timbral specificity and architectural detail we heard from the Shanghai orchestra, Stern was focusing his musicians on essentials. In rehearsal, he prioritized the idea of direction towards a single point, the acceleration in the allegro moderato for example: “If you feel the momentum there, my work is done.”

Stern did a lot more work over a number of days in Guangzhou. He laboured valiantly on another Sibelius peculiarity the Orchestre de Paris found difficult to grasp: the internalizing of emotions – the pressurizing of the symphonic development until it creates a big-bang, inducing a moment of poleaxing embrace. This is interpretative as well as textual: that rhythmic displacement, and the inevitably (but unpredictably) moving tectonics, give the impression that the struggle is tied to something fundamental. As Stern says: “From nature, the agony of life is transformed into something higher.”

Those words were well served by Xincao’s performance in Shanghai and they might even excuse the sleight of hand he deployed with the Second’s ‘big tune’. The YMCG Orchestra didn’t have the accuracy, heft or sound culture of its professional counterpart in Shanghai. But with Stern focusing his young and mostly Chinese musicians intensely on the tail-flick that ends the Fifth Symphony’s movement, we gained a sense of primordial force that I have heard lacking in other performances. The very idea of focus settled the natural counterpoint(s) that leads up to that point. One of the most obvious signs of inexperience with Sibelius is an orchestra sounding like it doesn’t know where it’s heading. Perhaps it’s not so difficult to avoid after all.  

To the ear, Stern’s Andante was too quick to achieve the same settled feel (that may have been necessary given this young orchestra’s ability to sustain). The symphony’s final chords didn’t have the emphatic feel they surely need even if you see the gesture as an opening door rather than a closing one – a banana skin for the most experience of orchestras because of the absence of a defined beat. But precisely because of the challenge of the piece as a whole, we absolutely felt the symphony straining towards its end point. The symphony’s clawing bid for release just before those chords had immense power.



Might it be that a certain distance from Western symphonic thought contributed to the surprising qualities of each of the performances I heard in China? I experienced a mere iota of both Sibelius’s oeuvre and China’s gargantuan orchestra infrastructure. But nonetheless, I was left with the feeling that Sibelius’s idiosyncrasies of construction may be less troublesome for orchestras not weighed down by their existence at the heart of contrasting traditions. Stern, an American, went into his performance using certain principles as guiding lights. It sounded from Xincao’s like he did the same (even if his pervaded deeper and were more complex). 

Many miles from Helsinki, Gothenburg, Glasgow or New York, Sibelius’s music can of course speak with the power and resonance with which we are used to hearing it parts of the western world – that’s its genius, and the proof of it lies in the audience reaction (in Shanghai, a sort of shock at the power of what was being heard). ‘Linguistic’ barriers to Sibelius interpretation may remain in place. But even if they are pegged to geography, my experiences in China have convinced me that lifting them isn’t. 

Featured photo: Shanghai Symphony Orchestra with Lin Xincao by Andrew Mellor.