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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Recordings Review: Famous Last Words?

On Sibelius, silence and the "death" of classical music.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sage advice from your favorite blog.
As the Internet erupted in a swirl of argument following the announcement of the "Death of Classical Music" in a recent issue of Slate, things have been a little bit more subdued here at the Brooklyn apartment headquarters of Superconductor. Frankly, I've been down for the count with a persistent head cold, acquired (ironically) during Act I of last Wednesday's La Bohème.

A stuffy head and running sinuses do not exactly make for great writing conditions, so much at-home time has been passed with recordings. Dominating the spindle of my Disc-Man (yes, I still spin actual CDs and it's hooked to my stereo) are the excellent new boxed sets chronicling Bernard Haitink's early output for the Philips Label (made mostly with the Royal Concertgebouw and the London Symphony Orchestra, newly reissued on Decca) and Carlo Maria Giulini's sweeping London catalogue with the Philharmonia Orchestra (now on Warner Brothers Classic). Perceptive readers may notice that these are the same two boxed sets I was listening to a few weeks ago, but keep in mind, they're 20 discs and 17 discs, respectively.

In between trawling the back catalogues of these two great conductors. I did have the chance to spend some time with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's new recording of the Symphony No. 6, Symphony No. 7 and Tapiola, the last three major works of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. I've missed doing recording reviews, and my own lack of blogging of late has made me think of Sibelius himself, and the long silence that bedeviled the composer in the last decades of his life. (Don't worry, readers, there's plenty more to come.)

Some background, first. In 1904, Sibelius and his family moved to Ainola, an estate on Lake Tuusuula near the town of Järvenpäa. (That's a modern photograph of the house serving a my new top bar.) This country seat became his home for the rest of his life, although the composer would maintain a necessary Helsinki apartment through the Second World War. At Ainola, the composer would write Symphonies Nos. 3-7 and the tone poem Tapiola, in a fertile period lasting until 1926. After the Seventh and Tapiola there were no more major orchestral works. (Sibelius may have also completed a Symphony No. 8 but the score was most likely burned.)

These extraordinary works are played with clarity and freshness by the ASO forces under the baton of Robert Spano. The Sixth springs to life like early flowers poking their heads above the late snow, giving way to a surge of brass and an onslaught of melodic inspiration. Here, Sibelius applied medieval modal technique to the modern orchestra, generating fresh sounds from familiar instruments in the same way that Miles Davis would later do on Kind of Blue. The slow second movement is is Sibelius at his most humorous and playful. The awkward-shouldered, slightly sardonic Andantino gives way to the belly laugh of the finale

If the Sixth is light-footed, the  one-movement Seventh is dense and deadly serious. Sibelius solves the problem of form by having all four movements of a symphony (Sonata allegro, Scherzo, slow movement, Rondo) interweave with each other, forcing conductor and orchestra to stay on their toes in a constantly shifting musical landscape. The final climax for horns, trumpets and trombones glows with radiant, broad-shouldered power. The ruminative Tapiola is an even more serious finale: a poem of the northern woodlands painted in stark winter colors.

Are there problems working in this industry? Of course there are. Money is tight. Tickets are not alway available. Record stores are shuttering, and record labels are running red. Advertisers cancel, or fail to renew. Orchestras get locked out, go on strike, and musicians, singers and conductors cancel or fall ill. But recordings like this Atlanta disc remind one of why music is important--and why Superconductor remains relevant in a world wondering who the hell Renée Fleming is and why she is singing at the Super Bowl. It's not just a publication or a soap-box--it's a statement. Culture remains vital for the basic happiness of life, and classical music, opera, and all the lively arts must survive.

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