BBC Proms – the Sibelius symphonies and more

Proms_logoThe BBC Proms is an extraordinary annual classical music festival. For two-and-a-half months, each night some amazing orchestra (and sometimes more than one) takes to the stage in the Royal Albert Hall in London and plays some amazing music. For visitors, it is possible to see this spectacle for 5 Pounds (the standing space in the arena). If that does not appeal, it is possible to have a seat ranging from the Circle at what seems to be close to the moon (and hence cheap), or the stalls just around the arena (a shade more expensive). Relative to most ticket prices for Orchestra performances, it is the best deal in town over the summer.

We mix and match, sometimes in the circle, others in small boxes (otherwise known as the second tier). We often dressA&I_proms_160515 up for the occasion (right). This year we have been quite strategic in our choice. It is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius and to mark it all of his symphonies are being performed over three nights (that is 7 in all). Moreover, the BBC being what it is, does not just play the music, but it tries to give context and develop listeners’ understanding of music in general and specific pieces in particular. It is fair to say that we knew very little of Sibelius other than he being Finnish. We learn that at the time that Sibelius was writing at the turn of the 19th Century, Finland was a place with little history and national identity. Sibelius became a cheerleader for Finnish nationalism and independence (first from Sweden and then Russia – finally getting independence in 1963, six years after his death).

SibeliusOne of his most famous pieces, Finlandia, dating from 1899, is an eight-minute call to national self-determination. It seems to me, it is a piece to Sibelius what Bohemian Rhapsody is to Queen in more modern times. It was a great way to start. But then come the symphonies – some against the backdrop of tumultuous change, others against his own alcoholism (his wife would go searching local bars to drag him home). His fourth symphony is a paen to landscape. The programme notes for this symphony make reference to conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who described it as ‘an essay in trying to be happy which fails.’ That works for me.

They are a mixed bag. Again, my ignorance takes over. Sibelius’ symphonies were not written for huge orchestras. Strings do much of the work (there is a lot of string plucking going on which doubles as percussion; there is not much of a percussion section). Woodwind and brass also feature. There are a lot of key changes. They are not the most accessible or indeed friendly. In his later years, he was a recluse, retreating to a country residence, Ainola, touchingly named after his wife, Aino. Though he did compose an eighth symphony, the score for which he destroyed.

We were treated, however, to Sibelius’ violin concerto. The soloist was Julian Rachlin (right). Seemingly, this is not an easyJulian_rachlin_ta_2011 piece for violin. The expectations for finger and bow coordination are considerable. Rachlin, however, is a virtuoso – a child prodigy – and handled it with aplomb – and provided an encore (a little frowned upon at the Proms). The concerto demonstrates the brilliance of the composer who, it seems, always doubted  his ability.

And maybe that accounts for – what seems to me to be – the inconsistency between the symphonies. His influences may also be a factor. In his early work inevitably Tchaikovsky is evident, as well as Brahms. Later he seemed to be in some kind of battle with Schoenberg, certainly in terms of pushing the boundaries of what actually is a symphony. For example, the Seventh Symphony which is about a river is composed in a single movement (normally one would expect three or four). That said, if one really listens closely, the separate movements are there. Maybe he was just trying not to give an opportunity for the audience to shuffle and cough inbetween movements (a very Proms thing to do)? His efforts at creating his own identity may well have done the opposite. I’m not sure how easy it would be for us to immediately identify a Sibelius piece, say for example against Mozart or Beethoven. One feature, perhaps, is Sibelius’ curious way of ending movements and symphonies. The end can often come by surprise for the uninitiated. I think further listening is needed.


Sibelius (BBC Proms website)

Julian Rachlin: Levg (Wikipedia)

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