New Classical Tracks: Music of Questions and Few Answers

by Julie Amacher
March 12, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: Music of Questions and Few Answers
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Sibelius - Symphonies No. 1 and 4 - Osmo Vanska: Minnesota Orchestra (Image courtesy of BIS)

When Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra released their first recording in their new cycle of Symphonies by Jean Sibelius last year it immediately earned high marks. Gramophone hailed their recording of the Symphonies No. 2 and 5 by the Finnish master as "a fine start to what may be the benchmark cycle for the 21st century," and it went on to earn a Grammy Award nomination for Best Orchestral Performance. They're second recording in this cycle has just been released and Music Director Osmo Vänskä believes this recording featuring the Symphonies No. 1 and 4 is even stronger, "I think that it's much better than 2 and 5," he proclaims, "People are playing with (the) same colors, they are breathing together, everything is nicely blended. And that's what the conductor is always trying to get out."

As you listen to this new release you'll hear just why Vänskä is so proud of this recording. Vänskä, who hails from Sibelius's homeland of Finland, instills in the Minnesota Orchestra the passion and deep understanding that he's developed over several years of living and breathing these works.

For more than one hundred years Finland was part of the Russian empire after being annexed by Sweden. When Sibelius composed his first symphony in 1899, the Finnish national spirit was strong, yet he used Russian composer Tchaikovsky as his model. Listen to the third movement, marked Scherzo and you'll immediately recognize the dancing rhythmic elements Tchaikovsky used in his ballet music. Sibelius also makes use of a powerful technique Tchaikovsky first implemented in his Pathetique Symphony—silence.

One of the most incredible moments in the First Symphony occurs right in the opening movement at the end of the exposition. One of the Minnesota Orchestra's many strong suits is the power and clarity of the brass section. In the first movement the intensity builds as the woodwinds pick up speed, the brass section enters majestically, yet briefly, and then everything stops—there's a moment of silence, which is also how this powerful movement ends.

In 1911 when Sibelius wrote his Fourth Symphony it was considered to be strange and dark, yet today it's regarded as one of his greatest masterpieces. Three years before writing this symphony, Sibelius was facing his own mortality. He developed a malignant throat tumor and the prognosis wasn't good. He survived the surgery, and went on to live another 49 years, yet he was still in a serious frame of mind as her wrote this symphony, searching his soul for answers. "Sibelius was living through hard times when he was writing his fourth symphony," Osmo Vänskä explains, "and the anguish can certainly be heard. The music has many questions and few answers."

The struggle ends in the final movement of the Fourth Symphony, yet many conductors emphasize its unsettling nature. Osmo Vänskä on the other hand has a more uplifting view, "We are now moving in deep waters: the music tells us that life goes on despite difficulties. We are in the hands of God," Vänskä concludes, "Divine power can not be excluded."

Thirty years after writing his Fourth Symphony, Sibelius wrote, "I am pleased that I did it, for even today I cannot find a single note in it that I could remove, nor can I find anything to add. This gives me strength and satisfaction." Something tells me Sibelius would also be quite pleased with the way Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra bring out every nuance in both the First and the Fourth Symphony.