New Classical Tracks - Sibelius from Minnesota

by Julie Amacher
January 25, 2012

Listen New Classical Tracks - Sibelius from Minnesota
Larger view
Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and 5 - Osmo Vanska/Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 1986) (Courtesy of BIS)

Ask just about any artist if a recording marks their final word on a piece of music, and they'll say, "No!" A recording is simply the way they felt about that piece at that moment in time. Music isn't static. It lives and breathes through the musicians who play it. Maybe that's why Osmo Vänskä wanted to record all of the symphonies by Jean Sibelius not once, but twice. The first time was in 1997 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Now, Vänskä is revisiting these works with the ensemble he's led since 2003, the Minnesota Orchestra, and he couldn't be more pleased. The first recording in this seven-symphony cycle was just released and Vänskä says this time, even their longtime producer, Robert Suff, was moved to tears. "Usually when we finally give the best take of something which was really needed, [he will say]'very good,' but he was in tears after this session when we played the Sibelius. And I have to agree with him. There was something very special. And when I heard the first edit a few months ago of those pieces, I was crying."

"I think it was a recording session with a lot of intensity, and a lot of action and great playing," Osmo Vänskä explains. They've done that before, but this time was different. "I think that something very special happened and the orchestra played really, really, really well and I had a feeling that every member was giving 100 percent or more. I had a very special feeling after the recording session."

The first disc in their Sibelius cycle features the two most popular symphonies by Jean Sibelius, the Symphony No. 2 in D major, and the Symphony No. 5 in E Flat Major. Thanks to a wealthy benefactor, Sibelius and his family were shipped off to spend a year in Italy. Free from the pressures of daily life, relaxing in the warmth of the Mediterranean springtime, Sibelius found the inspiration he needed to compose his Symphony No. 2, which he described as "a confession of the soul." The opening motif in the first movement with its rhythmic pulse sounds very much like folk music. It has a familiar quality that makes you think you've known this piece all your life. Add to that the passion and intensity of the Minnesota Orchestra, and you have a winning experience, according to Vänskä. "It's not only about the quality of the playing, but it's also this kind of jumping into those emotional feelings and trying to describe the music," he explains, "not only to play the right notes in tune, and the right intonation, in the right time."

Jean Sibelius started to formulate ideas for his Symphony No. 5 in 1912 as he was working on other pieces. In the fall of 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, he got an idea for a 'lovely theme.' He then made a prophecy to a friend on the path he was about to climb. "God is opening his doors for a moment, and his orchestra is playing the fifth symphony," Sibelius wrote. He quickly began to work out the pattern for this enchanting symphony. The soul of the final Allegro molto lies in the incredible, "swan theme," which emerges from a rush of tremolo strings. This magnificent theme was inspired after Sibelius witnessed sixteen swans ascending overhead: "One of the great experiences of my life," he wrote. "God, how beautiful!"

The Minnesota Orchestra and music director Osmo Vänskä seem to have an innate sense on how to make these Sibelius symphonies beautiful. You might be tempted to think that Osmo Vänskä is passionate about the music of Sibelius because both are Finnish. Not so, says Vänskä. He and the Minnesota Orchestra are able to give their all to this music because they love it. "There is no pressure," he confirms, "because if some music is great, you can play it a thousand times and it's still good. [It] keeps its power because great is great!"