Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony: “Pure Spring Water”

The Sixth may be Jean Sibelius’ most enigmatic symphony. It doesn’t offer the kind of heroic and triumphant journey we experience in the Second and Fifth Symphonies, or the strange, brooding darkness of the Fourth. Instead, it drifts through a soundscape which is shimmering, austere, and mysterious. “The Sixth Symphony always reminds me of the scent of the first snow,” said Sibelius in 1943. On another occasion, the composer spoke of the …

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Ginette Neveu: Three Historic Recordings

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the legendary French violinist, Ginette Neveu. Neveu died tragically in an airplane crash at the age of 30. Ginette and her brother Jean-Paul Neveu, an acclaimed pianist, were on their way to the United States for a concert tour when their Air France flight crashed into a mountain in the Azores on October 28, 1949. At the age of 15, Neveu was awarded …

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“Tapiola”: Sibelius’ Mysterious Final Tone Poem

In Pohjola there are thick, dark forests that dream wild dreams, forever secret. Tapio’s eerie dwellings are there and half-glimpsed spirits, and the voices of twilight. – Jean Sibelius  Tapio is the mythological spirit of the mysterious, remote forests of northern Finland who figures prominently in the Nordic folklore of the Kalevala. This is the subject of the tone poem, Tapiola, Jean Sibelius’ last major work, written in 1926 on a commission from Walter Damrosch and the New …

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Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony: “Turning Space Upside Down”

It begins with a distant drumbeat in the night- a barely-audible triple-beat timpani summons. Then, a strangely amorphous scale in the brooding low strings rises out of the darkness. A vague remembrance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde blends into a gradually-shifting kaleidoscope of veiled colors. Icy dissonance opens out into a vast, magnificent, sonic expanse. These are the first, primal seconds of Jean Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Actually, we don’t perceive this piece as having a …

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“The Swan of Tuonela”: Sibelius’ Voyage into Hades

Tuonela, the Kingdom of Death, the Hades of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a broad river of black water and rapid current, on which the Swan of Tuonela glides in majestic fashion and sings. Jean Sibelius inscribed these words in the early editions of his searing 1895 tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela. Originally conceived as the prelude to an opera, this atmospheric music came to life, instead, as part of the Lemminkäinen Suite, inspired by the Finnish …

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Sibelius’ First Symphony: Romanticism and Structure

Music is, for me, like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces in his hand, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces. -Jean Sibelius There’s a divine logic at work in the seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius. You get the sense of a self-creating structure- something Sibelius himself described in his famous meeting with Gustav Mahler as “style …

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New Release: Lisa Batiashvili plays Tchaikovsky, Sibelius

Georgian-born violinist Lisa Batiashvili’s newest album offers a surprisingly fresh take on two standard pillars of the violin repertoire- the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius Concertos. Batiashvili is joined by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin on this Deutsche Grammophon recording. Batiashvili’s interpretation of the Tchaikovsky is full of fluid tempo changes. It’s generally more contemplative than the classic performances of Heifetz and Oistrakh. (For example, listen to the burning intensity just below the surface of the second movement’s hushed stillness or …

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