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Inside The Music: A Scandinavian Spring

Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy sheds some light on the circumstances surrounding the great works that feature in the Bristol International Classical Season 2015-16 at Colston Hall. These bite-sized programme notes and accompanying videos cut to the heart of the music, allowing you to get that little bit more from your classical experience.

Sibelius Violin Concerto

Finnish composer Sibelius’s only concerto, completed in 1904, arose from the chaos of his personal life. He was, as the composer’s biographer Andrew Barnett whimsically puts it, keen on ‘keeping his creative muse well lubricated.’ And so Sibelius would spend not just hours at the bar of Helsinki’s Kämp Hotel, but days. But for the composer, alcohol brought solace: ‘When I am standing in front of an orchestra’, he once said, ‘and have drunk half a bottle of champagne, then I conduct like a young god.’ It was his eternally patient wife Aino, however, who managed to drag him away from the bad influence of his drinking partners long enough for him to complete his Violin Concerto, generating income that would hopefully replace the money her errant husband had spent on vodka…

Originally written for the great German violinist Willy Burmester, the concerto was originally far more technically challenging than the version we know today. Burmester was up to the challenge, however, and the premiere was set for March 1904. But weeks before, Sibelius, clearly living in his overdraft, suddenly found himself having to pay his builders who’d arrived to start work on his new house just outside Helsinki. The panicked composer, spurred on by the prospect of earlier payment, brought the premiere forward to February, whereupon Burmester found himself unavailable. Enter the young Helsinki violin teacher, Viktor Novácek, Burmester’s replacement who was simply not able to play it. ‘From time to time there were terrible sounds’, wrote one critic. In short, the premiere was a failure, and Sibelius immediately began to revise the whole work, not only simplifying the violin part, but overhauling everything else, too. Burmester never did play it…

The Violin Concerto starts rhapsodically, the soloist almost intoning the melody over the top of tremolo strings. The effect is to give the first movement a chilly, icy veneer, although Sibelius does turn the heating on from time to time as the sparse writing gives way to a glorious, almost Elgarian theme and a fiendish, angular cadenza. The second movement stays resolutely in the shadows, with the melody emerging from the very depths of the violin, accompanied by a growling orchestra’s horn and bassoon section. Eventually, the clouds lift, the violin playing one of Sibelius’s most tender melodies, as it climbs and climbs, reaching for the light. But it’s in the final movement where Sibelius finally kicks off his shoes, the critic Donald Tovey likening it to ‘a polonaise for polar bears’ thanks to galumphing nature of the orchestral scoring. But it’s unashamedly joyful and, for the violinist, extremely virtuosic. Sibelius was once asked how the movement should be played: ‘with absolute mastery,’ came the withering reply…

Mahler Symphony No.5

The following year, in 1905, Sibelius travelled to Berlin to hear, among other works, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. A couple of years later, Mahler made a brief visit to Helsinki where the two composers met to discuss their symphonies. And it was in Helsinki that Mahler made his now famous quote about his music: ‘the symphony must be like the world’, he mused; ‘it must contain everything.’ The monumental Symphony No. 5, written between 1901 and 1903 (but tinkered with right up until 1911), does seem to contain a huge amount, following, as it does, a huge arc through its five movements, from despair to exuberant reconciliation via one of the most beautiful outpourings of love in all music. It’s worth noting that the Fifth Symphony was the first to be written without a voice or choral part since Symphony No. 1 – in other words, Mahler was expressing everything he wanted to with pure music, and no texts.

The first movement Trauermarsch or funeral march starts and remains doggedly in the shadows, opening with a brooding fanfare on a solo trumpet (one of the most nerve-wracking moments for any orchestral trumpeter!). The rhythm of that fanfare – the same rhythm that opens Beethoven’s own Symphony No. 5 – dominates the movement, which also contains a beautiful lament played on the strings and a woodwind processional. You can hear anger bubbling to the surface from time to time – around five minutes in, the orchestral rails against the oppression with an angular, emotional outcry that gently subsides before the funeral march strikes up once again, the movement ending with a solo flute intoning part of the opening trumpet fanfare – and a plucked chord on the strings slams the door.

The second movement’s ‘stormy’ (in Mahler’s own words) character, although at first in contrast with the first movement’s despair, is entirely complementary, Mahler continuing to paint a struggle between darkness and light. Towards the end of the movement, a heavenly chorale attempts to win the day, only to be sent back into the gloom almost as soon as it appears.

And then the Scherzo, the longest of the five movements at almost 20 minutes, provides, in effect, a bridge between the symphony’s two halves – it’s an extended Ländler, or Germanic waltz, and, according to Mahler, ‘every note is charged with life, and the whole thing whirls round in a giddy dance.’ Despite its length, the variety of moods Mahler injects into the movement is staggering, each new episode threatening to destroy the gentle waltz – but ultimately failing, the dance growing defiantly ever more manic towards the end.

Mahler became engaged to Alma Schindler while writing his symphony – the Adagietto is his love letter to her. The composer even added a text to accompany the violin tune: ‘How I love you, / You my sun, / I cannot tell you / with words / Only my longing / Can I pour out to you / And my love / My joy!’ It’s perhaps Mahler’s most famous movement in all his symphonies, thanks to its use in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice.

And then, all of a sudden, Mahler’s music finds light at the end of the tunnel. The Rondo-finale which ends the symphony smiles from start to finish, with contrapuntal nods towards the composer’s hero, JS Bach in the form of a joyful fugue and a boiling pot of energy that continues to spill over until a final chorale in the brass prompts the orchestra to collapse into an exhausted heap. Mahler leaves us on a very fertile note indeed…

Words: Oliver Condy

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