Sibelius - the View from the Podium
“I recently saw a dream where composer Magnus Lindberg’s little daughter said, ‘your generation doesn’t understand Sibelius. You think his music is a process, but it isn’t.’ I woke up in a cold sweat,” laughs conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
“I guess that’s the way it is. Every generation discovers its own Sibelius. We did away with nostalgic national romanticism and focused on the deep processes that underlie the surface of Sibelius’ music. Our generation thought that Adorno and company were wrong in branding Sibelius a poor composer because his music was so conventional on the surface. We wanted to show that new and exciting things were happening just under the surface. That has been our message. Soon the next generation will pour theirs down our necks,” muses Salonen.
Salonen recorded Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony while still a young conductor. The recording is peculiar, to put it mildly. The maestro has himself admitted that he was able to strip the symphony of the usual mannerisms in the recording studio, but didn’t quite have the time to develop an interpretation of his own to fill the void.
“In those days, CBS was pressuring me to record the whole cycle of Sibelius symphonies. I resisted because it felt too obvious. I was totally against doing it then,” says Salonen of his situation in the mid 1980’s.
Around that time, Salonen made the comment that his relationship with Sibelius was like ‘a Bedouin’s relationship with sand.’ “I intentionally meant the allegory to be equivocal,” laughs Salonen.
As late as 1990, Salonen told the Finnish Music Quarterly, “Just at the moment, I don’t really see why I of all people should be recording Sibelius symphonies.” (FMQ 3-4/1990.)
Now the situation has changed. “I would like to record all of Sibelius’ symphonies, like any good citizen who has an interest in music,” admits Salonen with a twinkle in his eye.
The change in tone has been influenced by the maestro’s own coming of age. Salonen is over 40. “Sibelius has always been close to me, but my relationship with him is no longer like an adolescent boy’s relationship with his father. I don’t have to blow my nose in his dress coat to show that I am independent. I can take a peek at my passport and confirm that I am an adult and can get by on my own.”
Salonen plans to go through with his project once the Los Angeles Philharmonic gets its new Disney Hall, which is expected to be acoustically superior to its present building.
“We’re talking about some time around the year 2002-2003. There is no hurry, since there are a lot of Sibelius cycles on the market and some of them are very original and powerful.”
Is it possible to find a valid view of Sibelius that isn’t already on the market? “I’ll think about that when I get to the studio,” answers Salonen. “It’s not like I decide to do a new interpretation and then conduct everything slower or faster than anybody else. Developing an interpretation nevertheless is – a process.”
So far, Salonen has already recorded some Sibelius, including the Kullervo Symphony, the Lemminkäinen Legends, and a superb rendition of the Violin Concerto with Cho-Liang Lin.
Berglund is a Sibelian father figure
When Salonen finally does record the symphony cycle, he will be carrying on a monumental tradition that began with the recordings of pioneers like Robert Kajanus and Sir Thomas Beecham.
The most prominent modern-day conductor to shoulder that tradition is Paavo Berglund, who conducted the first recording of the Kullervo Symphony and has no less than three whole symphony cycles under his belt to date.
Jukka-Pekka Saraste has said that ‘living Sibelius began with Berglund.’ “I have always admired Berglund’s uncompromising approach,” admits Osmo Vänskä.
Paavo Berglund’s conducting career began in 1949, when he founded his own chamber orchestra. His Sibelius interpretations were inspired by listening to conductors like Eugene Ormandy, Sir John Barbirolli, and Hans Rosbaud.
“Herbert von Karajan also understood Sibelius, because he conducted the whole score. But his old recordings are too soft for my taste. I prefer hardness and vitality,” declares the maestro.
Berglund visited Ainola as a member of the Finnish Radio Orchestra in the 1950’s. “I didn’t know Sibelius personally. He asked me if we played Schoenberg. I said we didn’t. That was the whole conversation,” he notes in his laconic way.
On the other hand, Berglund really knows Sibelius’ music and is also well up on the composer’s life. I once went to meet him in Copenhagen and he walked me up and down the city centre, pointing out sites important to a Sibelius fan like the best travel guide.
“Over there, on the terrace of the Hotel d’Angleterre, Sibelius wrote to his friend Adolf Paul that he had to earn a lot of money because the only thing he was able to drink any more was champagne! And here, in the Royal Theatre, where The Tempest received its world premiere. Over there, there used to be a concert hall where he directed his last concert in Denmark,” lectured Berglund, who was at the time the principal conductor of the Danish Royal Orchestra.
Berglund’s own breakthrough came in the 1950’s, in concerts with the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Orchestra.
“I conducted Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony with the Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1956, but it didn’t really work out. The next year, I conducted it with the Helsinki Philharmonic, and it went better. I noticed that the Philharmonic played from parts that Sibelius had corrected himself, while the Radio Symphony played from parts with the original printing errors. That is when I understood how important it was to make sure that the parts were up to date!” relates Berglund.
This experience started a process that finally led to a study of the score of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Berglund discovered a profusion of errors in the printed score. In the end, his work led to Hansen’s publishing a revised edition of the Seventh Symphony in 1980. Berglund, nevertheless, was not happy even with this version.
Berglund is not satisfied with just having the notes right. To him, it is also extremely important that the balance is right – that the conductor “conducts the whole score,” that every note written into the score can be heard. He does not hesitate to change the orchestration in problematic places to obtain the translucent sound that he prefers, and to bring out details.
“The way I conduct a Sibelius symphony is very different from the manuscript. It will naturally sound horrible when I say that Sibelius wrote downright poorly. Just about everything has to be corrected,” said Berglund in an interview by Helsingin Sanomat on May 3, 1995.
Sibelius himself, however, wanted the details to ‘swim in the sauce.’ Do conductors insist on bringing out themes even when the composer meant them to mix with the rest?
“I think this way is better,” answers Berglund confidently. “It is nice to hear details. I think we have already had our fill of mushy recordings.”
It is easy to discuss details of the score with Berglund. On the other hand, any highfalutin discussion on aesthetics or the spirit of Sibelius’ music is totally impossible.
“I don’t know anything about a Spirit of Sibelius,” he says.
Perhaps he does, but humility before the music is a part of Berglund’s personality. The precise rendition of the score is enough for him; let the music speak for itself.
Berglund began recording Sibelius in Bournemouth in the early 1970’s. “Sibelius himself conducted in Bournemouth, so the tradition was there. When I recorded the symphonies again in the 1980’s with the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Sixth Symphony was pure gobbledygook to the orchestra and the work was hard. The orchestra was enthusiastic, nevertheless. The Second and Fifth Symphonies went well,” he recalls.
Berglund recorded his third Sibelius cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. He recorded the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies with a small ensemble of around 50 players, resulting in some real Diet Sibelius where every note came through and many secondary lines seemed to stand on their own as full equals of the actual melody lines. To the Third Symphony, Berglund added only one cellist. The First, Second, and Fifth Symphonies were recorded with a full-strength orchestra.
“The size of the orchestra is not a problem. For instance, the Fourth Symphony is so totally absolute music that the mass of the sound affects the result very little. It is almost like Bach’s Art of the Fugue, which was not composed for any particular instrument.”
While writing this article, I made a startling discovery that supports Berglund’s position. From the depths of the National Archive there appeared a large envelope containing slips of paper on which Sibelius’ son-in-law, conductor Jussi Jalas, had recorded the master’s utterings complete with dates. Some of these utterings had, for some reason, neglected to find their way into Jalas’ memoirs or his book on Sibelius’ symphonies.
“The IV Symphony does not require a large orchestra,” noted Sibelius to Jalas on October 1, 1939. “The III Symphony is well suited for a very small orchestra,” the composer continued on June 18, 1940. “I performed it in Moscow with an orchestra that had 12 violas, etc., and the woodwinds were almost wiped out. When I had it published, I was going to add a note that the orchestra should not exceed 50 players.”
Most conductors, it appears, conduct the Third Symphony with an oversize orchestra! The Chamber Orchestra of Europe is thus, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a more authentic Sibelian orchestra than one would have thought. However, the Sibelianism did not originally extend to the Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s phrasing.
“Initially, the orchestra’s way of playing did not work with Sibelius. You can’t play Sibelius like Mozart, which is bread and butter for this ensemble. You need a totally different type of phrasing. But these are good, professional people. They are good to work with,” extols Berglund.
He says he considers the sound quality of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies to be a bit on the thin side. The other records sound undeniably better.
“A recording reflects the interpretation of the moment. I already think differently of certain things as compared to the recordings [of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies]. But I certainly claim them as my own, nevertheless, and the older ones as well.”
Sir Colin Davis’ grim vision of Sibelius
The way conductor Sir Colin Davis describes conducting Jean Sibelius is dramatic. “I look in the mirror and see the ruthlessness of life, and nevertheless find the strength to go on with it. Sibelius was happy in a crowd and depressed when he was alone. I’m like that, too.”
Davis is a Sibelius conductor who in the 1970’s challenged Berglund’s Bournemouth recordings with his own Sibelius cycle with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Now Davis has topped that acclaimed cycle by recording a new set with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Conversing with Davis is quite the opposite of talking to Berglund. While Berglund prefers to discuss technical details, Davis’ imagination runs wild as he describes Sibelius’ music.
Davis the conductor is also the antithesis of Berglund and the Finnish interpretative tradition. Especially in his 1970’s cycle, Sibelius sounds thick, even turbid, while the Finns seek to thin out and brighten Sibelius’ orchestration. Even in his new version, Davis avoids overbalancing and allows lines that backlight the themes to come out and give additional colour to the sound.
“I really don’t see the point in overbalancing. An interpretation must be natural. If the listener’s attention focuses on the conductor instead of the music, the interpretation is usually too pretentious,” says Davis.
In November 1997 Davis conducted all of Sibelius’ symphonies in London. I noted that the tempi were again quite different from those of his recent recordings. For instance, the Il tempo Largo of the Fourth Symphony was much slower than the recorded version.
“Yes! Then I have succeeded! I’ve always felt that it is played too fast. At this age, I am no longer in a hurry. Sibelius’ music needs space, and when you’re seventy years old you appreciate that better than as a youngster.”
To Davis, the Fourth Symphony is a disconsolate and uncompromising work.
“The second movement begins gaily enough, but then something bewildering and horrible happens. To me, the last pages of the score describe Death, with no false consolations. It’s like a sleigh that has run off the road. Sibelius’ loved ones lie around it, dead, and he feels he has let them down.”
What about the last bars of the symphony, where the music collapses into an austere A-minor?
“That is Sibelius, smoothing over the graves of his loved ones with his bare hands,” is Davis’ sombre description.
Davis pictures Night Ride and Sunrise in equally dark verbal colours. “There, you have an agonized Sibelius riding through the night because he cannot sleep. Along the way, he sees goblins and ghosts and breaks out in a cold sweat. And then the sun comes up. The nightmare is over, at least for a while,” paints Davis.
The Sibelianic religion of Osmo Vänskä
Osmo Vänskä’s vision of Sibelius is not necessarily grim, but rather religiously sombre. The conductor, who has gained international fame with his recordings of original versions of Sibelius’ music with his own ensemble, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, likes to phrase his thoughts in religious terms.
Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra performed the whole cycle of Sibelius symphonies in Helsinki in the autumn of 1997, the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death. In this connection, Vänskä spoke of his thoughts on the symphonies in an interview.
“The First Symphony is the energetic music of a young man,” begins Vänskä. “Young Sibelius was no wimp, the man’s wildness and frenzy is there in his music. Our interpretation distances the symphony from the Russian tradition.”
The tempo of the first movement is Allegro energico, and that is exactly what it sounds like in Vänskä’s recording. “You’ve just got to have the energy. You don’t have to hold on to Sibelius’ metronome marking like grim death, but a fast tempo in the first movement was also Sibelius’ own wish,” the conductor argues.
“The Second Symphony has to do with our nation’s struggle for independence, but it also reflects the individual’s struggle, crisis, and breakthrough. That is why it makes such a strong impression. The beginning must be played lightly, not with false profundity. The tempo of the second movement must come naturally. I often ask the musicians whether this is a good tempo to play in. In the Finale, I always try to hold back. You mustn’t turn on the pathos too early. The dynamic marking for the beginning of the Finale is only one forte!” admonishes Vänskä.
“In the Third Symphony, Sibelius is at a crossroads. After the frenzy of the First and the pathos of the Second, he found something new: a kind of Viennese classical clarity. The Third is not always appreciated, but I really love it.”
To Vänskä, the Fourth Symphony is not a depressing work but positive one.
“The time of the Fourth Symphony was a difficult one for Sibelius, and you can naturally hear the anguish. The music contains lots of questions and few answers. The musical language is totally new. We play the Il tempo Largo slower than usual, because it is the only Largo marking in all of Sibelius’ symphonies. I do not find the end of the symphony discouraging, I rather think of it as being positive. It should not slow down one bit. We are now in deep waters: the music tells us that life goes on, hard as it may be. We are in the hands of the Almighty. The Divine Presence cannot be ignored.”
As the interpreter of the original version of the Fifth Symphony, Vänskä gave many Sibelians a pleasant shock. The fine recording introduces a symphony where the horn signals of the beginning are missing and the massive final chords are underlain by a timpani tremolo. The original version also contains passages that sound like bridges between the Fourth Symphony and the final version of the Fifth.
“I began to understand the Fifth better after conducting the original version. I feel like crying at the end; there is something cathartic about it. It’s not the cosmic depths that are so touching in the piece, but rather the fact that I, as a small human being, experience a feeling of consolation and divine guidance. The work is straightforward, but very difficult to conduct. The tempi are crucial.
“The Sixth Symphony is autobiographical. The ageing man is aware of his own human weaknesses. The ideals are there, but he cannot reach them. The second movement functions as a slow movement, even though the tempo marking is Allegretto moderato. I conduct it at something between an allegretto and an andantino,” continues Vänskä.
Vänskä has evidently hit the nail on the head in his choice of tempo for the second movement. Conductor Simon Parmet relates in his little-known book on the symphonies of Sibelius (1955, English edition 1959) how the composer was vexed when listening to a rather fast rendition of the second movement on the radio. “That was much too fast! Why did they play it like that, though the tempo is marked andantino?” he exclaimed to Parmet.
When Parmet remarked that the tempo was marked Allegretto moderato on the score, Sibelius said he was going to inform his publisher that “the tempo marking should be changed to andantino forthwith.” Later, in 1951, Sibelius discussed the subject with his secretary. “Around the time when I wrote the Sixth Symphony, conductors liked to conduct very slowly, sometimes at an absolute snail’s pace. That is why I marked the second movement Allegretto quasi andantino. Since conductors nowadays generally prefer quick tempi, it should really be Andante.”
Sibelius was again mistaken: the tempo is marked Allegretto moderato rather than Allegretto quasi andantino. But this discussion also indicates that Vänskä’s instinct was right: the second movement is a slow movement.
“The Seventh Symphony is a pair to the Sixth. But it is not autobiographical,” muses Vänskä. “The self is left behind and the interests of humankind come to the fore. The composer turns his eye away from himself and towards God. The Seventh is sacred music. This work is also very difficult to play.”
Vänskä is vexed when someone speaks of his interpretations. The conductor says he only directs what he reads in the score. “I have given up the Finnish performance traditions insofar as they differ from the written music,” he says.
Conducting rarities and original versions has given Vänskä a more comprehensive understanding of the composer.
“The original version of En Saga is still a lot like Kullervo, and the composer later deleted specifically the Kullervo-like elements. SkogsrÀ#Àet is also a bridge between Kullervo and the First Symphony. It stands on its own feet as a fine work which Sibelius may have forgotten only because it contained Finnish national elements while he wanted to see himself more and more as a universal composer.”
“The difficulty in Sibelius’ music lies in the unbelievable amount of detail,” muses Vänskä. “The details must be played precisely, but they should swim in the sauce.”
Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the meaning of movement
“I am a little worried, because I don’t feel the momentum of the music in your playing. I think it is very important that the music has a direction. You have to think all the time about where you are going!”
The words of Jukka-Pekka Saraste as he conducted Finlandia with the Toronto Youth Orchestra some years ago often come to my mind while listening to his records. The tempi are usually brisk, and even the slow movements have a feeling of energetic determination.
“I am fed up with empty sounds that go nowhere. The orchestra has to vibrate with energy. This is especially true when playing pianissimo,” Saraste has said.
Saraste has recorded two full cycles of the Sibelius symphonies with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He has been the orchestra’s principal conductor for more than ten years. Their collaboration actually began with Sibelius.
One of the first concerts where Saraste conducted the FRSO took place on a tour of Australia in 1985. The Orchestra had already played several concerts with Leif Segerstam and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and motivation was at an ebb. Some of the musicians were also nursing hangovers from the previous night’s partying. “Sibelius’ Sixth is old hat,” thought the players.
Saraste disagreed. He started bossing the players, though only a couple of years earlier he himself had been a violinist in the same orchestra.
The result was a terrible row. The young man drilled his crapulous colleagues like a sergeant major and almost caused a spontaneous strike. The relationship between the conductor and the orchestra was rapidly strained to the breaking point, and nobody knew how the fuming ensemble would perform in the evening.
“They played like gods. There was this unbelievable Hare Krishna feeling! After the concert we wept and hugged each other, and I knew that the FRSO was my dream post,” Saraste described the situation ten years later.
Nowadays, Saraste shuttles between the FRSO and the Toronto Symphony, his repertoire still sporting a liberal dose of Sibelius. He agrees with Berglund that correcting the balance of a Sibelius symphony is extremely laborious because the composer’s dynamic markings are often ‘way off’.
“The music of Sibelius gives the performer many choices as concerns emphasis, interpretations, balance, tempi, and phrasing,” claimed Saraste still in 1995. “Some works from his late period remain at the level of a fantasy or an idea. The conductor’s job is to find out what that idea is.”
When I interviewed Saraste in the spring of 1998, the maestro renowned for his energy, sharp accents, and sleek sound surprised me by announcing that he had drastically changed his way of thinking.
“The breadth of sound and the rubato have become more important to me. I’ve given a lot of thought to the way Toscanini and Furtwängler conducted. In those days, the conductor created the large framework but the section leaders actively led their own sections. This created an exciting kind of friction where the sizzling energy and the structural lines came together. That is my current interpretive ideal in a nutshell.”
It will be interesting to see how Saraste’s change of direction influences his interpretation of Sibelius’ music.
Even Simon Rattle believes in Berglund
It is quite obvious that the Finnish conductors have taken their cue from Berglund. The fact that many of them have copied Berglund’s changes in the orchestration and other balance improving tricks hardly surprises anyone. But few probably know that even Sir Simon Rattle relied on Berglund’s advice when he recorded his Sibelius cycle in the 1980’s.
“Paavo was unbelievably friendly. When he heard that I was in the process of recording Sibelius’ symphonies, he grabbed the score and began to shower me with advice. He spent several days helping me. He made thousands of marks on the score. Corrections of printing errors, suggestions for improving the balance, good ideas. I still have them. Did I use them? You think I’m crazy? I used everything!” confesses Sir Simon Rattle.
Nevertheless, the sound ideals of Rattle and Berglund are very different. “Paavo wants a very unique sound. The brass play very softly and translucently. The strings aren’t allowed to use much vibrato. He is one of the great conductors still among us. He gets better year by year and is a very fierce leader,” says Rattle.
Rattle himself appears to prefer a full and lustrous string sound that is not very discriminating. His recordings of Sibelius are characterized by a youthful vitality. Especially the Seventh Symphony has been highly acclaimed. “There’s good stuff in there. When I first heard the Seventh, I didn’t recognize it, but I was pleased all the same. It was one of those things that when I heard it, I thought, Oh my God, I am not sure that I even want to know the conductor and the orchestra who made it like that, but whoever they are, they did it. I was impressed and surprised.”
When I met Sir Simon, he had just conducted Wagner’s Parsifal. I remarked that Sibelius’ Seventh has sometimes been called Sibelius’ Parsifal.
“I think it is purely an accident. C major means very, very different things in these composers. Maybe I’m wrong. The only thing I would say is that if it was possible to concentrate a Wagner opera into ten minutes, then maybe you would come up with the first movements of the Fourth Symphony. Something maybe could connect Sibelius to the third act of Parsifal. But Sibelius is so concentrated and exact. Wagner may be very exact but he is not concentrated,” he laughs.
“With Sibelius you feel that if one drop touches your skin it will burn right through to the bone. It’s a shame he didn’t write an opera.”
But he did! The Maiden in the Tower. But of course the libretto of this one-act opera is quite miserable.
“Yes, I know. I am also counting that…”
Rattle admires Sibelius’ evolution towards “an ever more refined statement.” He considers it totally logical that Sibelius stopped composing after Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony because he had “reached the end of one logical road.”
Just at the moment, however, Sir Simon prefers to keep the composer he greatly admires on the back burner.
“I conducted so much Sibelius in the 1980’s that I thought it was time to take a break. But I’m afraid that I drilled my way of playing Sibelius into the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra so well that I almost feel sorry when I think of how much difficulty other conductors will have, trying to change the tradition I created into their own kind of Sibelius.”
This challenge is currently being tested, as Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo works through his first season at Birmingham. After several years of scarcity, Oramo has replenished the repertoire with a healthy dollop of Sibelius.
Neeme Järvi and the exhilaration of speed
“Conductors have competed over who conducts Sibelius in the slowest tempo. He’s been conducted like a slow-motion film. That’s absurd!” said the Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi in 1996, when he conducted all of Sibelius’ symphonies at the Barbican Centre in London with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Järvi had already recorded the symphonies for the Bis label with the same orchestra.
Järvi’s statement was probably a protest against interpretations like Leonard Bernstein’s Sibelius recordings from his last years and perhaps also Lorin Maazel’s second Sibelius cycle, which is as slow as his first one was fast.
“When you look at the score with a fresh eye and forget the biased performance tradition, you can find a lot of new things. Ta-da-da-da-da-da… the Seventh Symphony has momentum, it moves forward unstoppably, why should it drag along, taaa-daaa-daaa… The Finale of the Fourth Symphony is also fast, as in Haydn’s symphonies.”
How about the tragic and despairing end of the Fourth Symphony, where the struggle collapses into a dismal A minor cadenza? Järvi’s views are close to Osmo Vänskä’s.
“Who said it’s gloomy? Sibelius, or his biographer Erik Tawaststjerna? And who said it always has to slow down so much? Not the score, at any rate. I think the ending of the Fourth is optimistic!” exclaims Järvi.
Many Sibelius fans may find this difficult to swallow. On the other hand, fast interpretations also have a tradition of their own. Young Lorin Maazel broke the speed records years ago when he recorded the symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic, and even Sibelius himself complained to Jussi Jalas about how slow the Second Symphony was often conducted.
“That is exactly what I was talking about. It’s a dance! A dance!” shouts Järvi and sings a long passage from the beginning of the Second Symphony.
Järvi emphasizes the joy of making music. In 1996, he remarked that his idea of Sibelius had become more “compacted and concentrated.”
“To me, Sibelius is not a Romantic but above all a Classical composer.”
Järvi’s superfast rendition of Sibelius’ Seventh stopped the clock at 18 minutes at the Barbican performance of the cycle in 1996. I am ready to bet that you won’t find a faster recording in your record shelf. Järvi cut three whole minutes off his time on the Bis recording, which itself is hardly one of the slower ones!
On the other hand, Järvi cannot be considered a mere sprinter. On his fairly recent recording of Sibelius’ tone poems, he conducts Finlandia at a leisurely pace and presents an artless and stirring interpretation of Luonnotar together with his soloist, Soile Isokoski.
“There are, perhaps, only some five or ten notable Sibelius conductors in the world. Things are well in Britain, thanks to the efforts of pioneers like Sir Thomas Beecham and many others. In Finland, the Lahti Symphony is doing good work, now that Sibelius’ heirs have begun to authorize the recording of works that could not yet be performed when we were recording Sibelius for the Bis label.”
“But now the next generation is taking over, and Sibelius must be introduced to a new audience. He still needs pioneers,” emphasizes Järvi.
Two new Sibelius conductors
As if in answer to Järvi’s call, the next generation of Finnish Sibelius conductors is already ascending the podium. One of them, of course, is Sakari Oramo, Simon Rattle’s successor as principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Another is Tuomas Ollila, who has made fine Sibelius recordings as principal conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra. Ollila, however, left the orchestra after his first four-year contract ran out and is currently finishing a year’s sabbatical.
As an interesting reflection on the young maestros, the experienced Sibelius conductor Okko Kamu once thought he was listening on the radio to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter, when in fact the performers were Ollila and the Tampere Philharmonic.
When I interviewed the two young conductors, Ollila emphasized that Finnish conductors had now gone too far in sharpening the balance.
“Perhaps we’re trying to bring out themes even in places where Sibelius himself really wanted them just to swim in the mixture. Overbalancing has reached a dead end. It is time to find out how, for instance, Sibelius’ Seventh sounds if played exactly according to the score, without all of the little corrections that have always been made in Finland.”
“I have tried that abroad with the Seventh, and it does actually get rather messy at first,” notes Sakari Oramo, “but I agree with the general principle. The balance has been corrected a bit too much.”
Oramo’s concert performances of Sibelius have been characterized by refinement and geniality. Ollila has recorded, e.g., the Karelia music and the Music for the Press Celebrations in brisk tempi and with a chamber music-like translucence.
Will the Birmingham Symphony some day do another recording of Sibelius’ symphonic cycle, this time with Oramo? Will Ollila continue his series of excellent Sibelius recordings? Sibelius fans should keep their ears peeled.
From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 1/1999