The Hartt Philharmonia and I performed Sibelius's Symphony no. 2 last week. What is it about this composer that separates him for everyone else?
For one thing, he summons the most extraordinary sounds from an orchestra, made up of instruments not unlike that used by Schumann or Brahms. No fancy percussion. No exotic woodwinds. How does he do this? I look at the page, and I still wonder.
There are some things that do jump out . . . .
Low flutes together with stratospheric violins. Kettle drums that do not support the ensemble as much as they stir things up. Violins by themselves, one voice. An oboe, playing the same note ten times before moving on.
In the first movement, near the end of the exposition, just as he appears to be wrapping things up, Sibelius inserts quiet trumpets: if you're not paying attention, you won't hear them, but it haunts an otherwise spirited passage. In the second movement, there are so many silences filled with angst, some of which leave you feeling something has been left unsaid, so disturbing that no one dares to utter it.
People often talk about how Copland's music reveals an American-like quality, as if you can actually see the plains and prairies when you hear it. In Sibelius, the landscape is barren, haunted. After a timpani roll, pizzicato basses are earth bound until cellos show them another way; thus freed, the basses seem to have new life, until gravity wins out. The cellos return, and now they are going nowhere. Over and over, they try to overcome something, each time to no avail. In this music, there is a circular dread, and the bassoons confirm it. The news is not good.
Throughout the second movement, there are melodic and harmonic (as well as silent) reminders of Wagner. Richard Strauss is said to have spent most of his career wishing he had written Tristan und Isolde. This is Sibelius's Tristan.
The scherzo brings great relief, particularly with the oboe solo in the trio. But before the return, there is a false entrance of brass. Why are they playing here? Why are they so loud and chaotic? Their rhythms don't match up with one another, making it sound like a grand mistake. The strings bring us back to a proper recapitulation, but the sting is still with us. Indeed, it has evidently upset the strings as well, because they play in a different order from which they began. Everything is upside down. Will the tension ever abate?
The release does not come until the finale, but even then, it is still conditional. The melody -- that glorious tune of tunes -- circles around the home note, and we like that. But throughout the movement there is more circular activity, like a wave that keeps crashing up against us. In our performance, when we arrived at the coda, I still had a feeling of dis-ease from what we had just sustained. Besides Tchaikovsky (think of the "Pas de Deux" in Act II of Nutcracker), is there anyone else who writes such profoundly sad music in the major mode? Here, on the last page, the trumpets keep wanting to exalt, to bring us home, and at every turn, the orchestra keeps playing on, not wanting to believe them.
Is there a greater composer from the 20th century? There are a few who are his equal, but no one better.