When I first became excited about classical music, it was primarily to piano music that I was drawn. My first records were of Van Cliburn playing concertos by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, and of Vladimir Horowitz playing Liszt. Who could listen to those performances and not fall in love with the piano!
My appreciation for music written for other instruments – and for symphonic, chamber, and vocal music – developed just as surely, but more slowly. Sibelius’ Fifth was one of the first symphonies to truly stir my blood. I learned to love it through a glorious 1965 Columbia release featuring Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. From the very first, I fell in love with the majesty and grandeur of this symphony. I’ve never been to Sibelius’ homeland, but in many passages, I can’t help but imagine myself surrounded on all sides by the frozen beauty of the Finnish countryside.
This video also features Leonard Bernstein, but conducting the Vienna Philharmonic rather than the New York Phil. It was recorded in 1988, two years before Bernstein died.
Sibelius’ compatriot, Paavo Berglund, who died this last January at the age of 82, was widely known for his interpretations of Sibelius; in fact, he recorded all seven of his symphonies three times with three different orchestras. In a 1998 interview with the London Sunday Times, Berglund spoke as follows about his music:
“Sibelius’s music is often ruined because it’s too strictly accurate. I think maybe musicians like to play like this…” he makes a series of downward vertical gestures “…but it’s good to do it like this” his hands, one above the other, oscillate gently in and out of vertical alignment. “Accuracy against atmosphere: it’s not that simple. The early Sibelius conductor Georg Schneevoigt once complained that he couldn’t get the details out of Sibelius’s scores. Sibelius said that he should simply swim in the gravy.”
I’m not sure exactly what Sibelius meant by that phrase, but I love it anyway. So much, in fact, that I now invite you to join me in the gravy.