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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

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We'll see if I'm narrowing things too much, by starting a thread on a specific composer.  But I feel more coherent if I write my thoughts down, and I thought it would be fun to enter my jottings as I listen to Symphonies 1-7.  I'll also try to find a good rendition on YouTube of each symphony to share.

Since I first dug into classical music in the 1990s, I've been fascinated that a composer with such talents would basically stop writing music for the last 30 years of his life.  Reading Alex Ross' excellent-if-dense overview of 20th C classical music, The Rest Is Noise, it seems we largely have clinical depression (maybe bipolar disorder?) and alcoholism to blame for Sibelius' three-decade silence. 

I'm curious to learn more of his life and have one of his bios on my Amazon wish list.  What little I know impresses on me that he was a complicated chap.  Like many upper-crust Finns, Swedish was his first language.  But like many Finns of his generation, he became passionate about his country's fight for independence, and apparently didn't mind when his 2nd Symphony and his short piece Finlandia were appropriated for patriotic aims.  Alas, he didn't conduct himself courageously during Finland's collaboration with Nazi Germany for most of WW2, something that apparently filled him with self-loathing.

Anywho, on to my impressions of his first symphony, completed in 1899.  (And Evan, Michael, or anyone else, feel free to point out if I've missed the boat anywhere; music isn't my second or even third language.)  Right off the bat, it's obvious that were in Sibelius' sonic world, though I think I hear echoes of the second movement of Beethoven's 9th at the conclusion of Sibelius' first movement.  And more frantic segments of his fourth movement have a 19th C Russian air to them, perhaps Borodin in particular.

The first and fourth movements are by far my favorites, and honestly, the second movement didn't do much for me.  (This is typical for me; slow movements really have to wow me to leave an impression.)  I love the solo clarinet that opens the symphony.  In the third movement (Scherzo), I especially appreciated the opening pizzicato, and then the way the spry melody is carried by the kettledrums at the end.  But the fourth movement wowed me the most, with its rapidly changing moods:  from a folk dancy tune (somewhere between Dvorak and Bartok in degree of overt folksiness) to hymn-like reverence to lush emotive melody.  And I love its audacious conclusion: instead of the expected bombast, we get soft kettledrum followed by two plucked notes from the strings.

This leaves me quite eager to listen to the remaining six symphonies.  I really like the rendition of his First that I've linked to below, helmed by Estonian-American conductor Paavo Jarvi.  It's a live performance, so it's not perfect, but it's well-filmed, with nice long shots of the full orchestra alternating with close-ups of featured individual players.  And Jarvi is a very expressive conductor who seems to be having a merry time through much of this, while breaking an impressive sweat.

 

Edited by Andrew

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Really nice post on Sibelius, Andrew. I like a lot of his music, but I've never taken the time to learn much about his life -- so I find what you wrote to be really interesting. I do know that there is a nationalist/patriotic spirit in his music, but I wasn't aware of much else, including the fact that he didn't compose for the last 30 years of his life. It seems like he was very troubled. 

Very keen impressions of his first symphony. Yeah, I agree that the fourth movement is the best part of the symphony; it has so much character, it's dynamic, and the ending, as you point out, is nice. Not a bang, but a nice whimper from the strings. Portions of the movement sound heavily Romanticized to my ears -- a good indication that Sibelius was influenced by the high Romantic composers. I can hear a little Brahms in the opening and the early parts of the first movement (which, by the way, has some great melodies). 

I can't remember exactly when I first heard this symphony -- it was definitely decades ago, though, in a recording by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, coupled with Finlandia. A few years ago, I got the symphony cycle by Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at a good price when Amazon had it on sale. It's really solid (plus it includes four of Sibelius' tone poems). When it comes to classical music by Scandinavian composers (among others), you can't go wrong with Paavo Jarvi, or his father, Neeme Jarvi. 

Looking forward to your thoughts on the other symphonies. Also, if you've not heard it yet, I recommend Sibelius' violin concerto. It's part of the main violin repertoire for very good reasons. 

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Thanks, Michael.  At least of the Sibelius music I've heard thus far, it seems you can draw a fairly straight line from 19th C Romantic compositions to his music: the tonality, melodious quality, and heart on sleeve emotionalism.  Watching and listening to this symphony, his mastery of orchestration also comes through, in allowing the brass, woodwinds, traditional strings, harp, and percussion to shine through at different times.

It's been years since I've listened to the violin concerto, so I'll add that to his symphonies for a re-listen in the coming weeks.  And thanks for the recommendation on a good recording of his symphonic cycle; I've got a birthday coming up, so I've added it to my wish list.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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23 hours ago, Andrew said:

Thanks, Michael.  At least of the Sibelius music I've heard thus far, it seems you can draw a fairly straight line from 19th C Romantic compositions to his music: the tonality, melodious quality, and heart on sleeve emotionalism.  Watching and listening to this symphony, his mastery of orchestration also comes through, in allowing the brass, woodwinds, traditional strings, harp, and percussion to shine through at different times.

All of the above, indeed! :) I forget off-hand which movement it is, but there's a section in which the harp gets its moments of glory ... or its 15 minutes of fame ... and it's really enjoyable to hear. And Sibelius really proved how skilled he was at orchestration in his very first symphony. 

I don't know if the Berglund/Bournemouth cycle is still in print (if you happen to buy CDs still, as opposed to downloading digital files), but it's definitely worth listening to or even obtaining if it's at a good price. 

For a long time, Sibelius' violin concerto was my favorite in the repertoire ... until I heard Shostakovich's 1st v.c., and that instantly became my #1. 

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I didn't know Sibelius' 1st symphony, so that was really nice to listen to. I think your analysis is spot on, Andrew; there's definitely a Beethoven influence, and I heard a strong nationalistic influence as well, which is what gives it such a distinct character (as contrasted with some other first symphonies--Dvorak, Nielsen--who are clearly copying earlier masters in theirs).

I actually really liked the pulsing crescendo of the 2nd movement; I thought Sibelius did a great job of controlling the mounting tension until it exploded through the orchestra. You're right about the effectiveness of the ending; I can think of a lot of pieces that end softly, but not many that have a huge chord followed by two quiet notes, almost as a sort of reaction to that chord. I also liked how the first movement laid out most of the themes and orchestration techniques that would come back through the symphony.


"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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I had some time this afternoon to track down a performance of Sibelius' 2nd Symphony and give it a listen.  I'm not completely happy with my choice (the Sinfonica de Galicia seems to fall apart a bit in the transition between the 3rd and 4th movements), but overall, the sound quality is better than the Bernstein and Tortelier performances that popped up at the top of my YouTube search, and the climax-upon-climax of the final movement gave me the chills that a good performance of Sibelius' Second ought to.

In reading the overview of this symphony in Edward Downes' Guide to Symphonic Music, evidently a couple of Sibelius' close friends confirmed that it has a program behind it:  commencing with an idyllic notion of a free Finland, folding over to outside oppression, before concluding with the rise of a deliverer.  I can certainly see this:  the first movement, after a serene string intro, passes around a lovely melody from the oboe on to the clarinet, French horn, and flutes.  But overall, this and the third movement have a harried feel to them.  

The second movement, which I really dig, also has an unsettled vibe to it, but it's more somber and dark-hued, especially at the beginning.  I love how Sibelius gives 3 full minutes to pizzicato bass/cello and a bassoon melody, before the full strings get in on the action.  This movement has a tender string melody, while the third movement has a lovely oboe-dominant interlude, but again, darkness and unease predominate until the Finale.

The fourth movement never gets old for me.  I count three climaxes, with softer breaks between them, before the closed cadence, brassy "Amen!" at the end (quite a contrast to the end of his First Symphony!).  At the end of the first climax, there's a feeling that the wheels could fly off this symphony, with the surprising dissonance that starts with the flutes.  Then there's a gorgeous Romantic lushness before a cinematic second climax (the swirling flutes give me a picture of wind blowing through the sails of a storm-tossed ship).  The triumphal groundswell of the final climax feels well-earned after the tumult preceding it.

 


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Andrew, your survey of Sibelius' symphonies is inspiring me to listen to them again, particularly those symphonies, like the 2nd, that I haven't heard in quite some time. I had the 2nd playing a few nights ago while I was reading -- not really fair to Sibelius and not the most engaged way to listen, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. :) In your analysis of the 1st symphony, you alluded to Beethoven, and I can hear strains of his influence in the opening of the 2nd symphony's first movement. Everything becomes a bit heavy-handed as the movement develops (especially around 6 minutes or so, depending on which recording you're listening to) -- but I mean that as a description, not a criticism. And I love how the fourth movement ends. 

When you finish up with all of his symphonies, you might check out a wonderful recording by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes -- it's simply titled "Sibelius." Two dozen selections from Sibelius' compositions for solo piano, most of which are rarely recorded and performed. It's a great album.

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On 5/31/2020 at 3:08 PM, Michael S said:

When you finish up with all of his symphonies, you might check out a wonderful recording by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes -- it's simply titled "Sibelius." Two dozen selections from Sibelius' compositions for solo piano, most of which are rarely recorded and performed. It's a great album.

Thank you for this recommendation; I'm putting it on my wishlist.

COVID + civil unrest = crappy sleep, so I didn't feel up to tackling an entirely new piece of music today.  So instead I gave a listen to JS' Violin Concerto, which I probably haven't heard for a decade or more.  (This was an apt moment to listen to it anyway, since he composed it between his 2nd and 3rd symphonies.)

I'm glad you recommended a listen, Michael, because I'd forgotten how enjoyable it is.  The first and second movements sound very Brahmsian to my ears (with a touch of Dvorak thrown in), which I suppose shouldn't be a surprise, since Brahms had only died 8 years before the final version of Sibelius' piece was first performed (conducted by Richard Strauss, no less).  It has that warmth that I associate with Brahms, at any rate.  In the first two movements, only the section when the full strings enter in the second movement, with the brass quickly coming behind, sounds distinctly Sibelian to me.

But dang, that 3rd movement has such an exuberant uniqueness!  Definitely a toe-tapping melody, with such interesting orchestration, pared down to 2 violins and violas, single double bass, and single kettledrum for most of it.  One English conductor described it as a polonaise for a polar bear, and it has a lumbering yet joyous quality to it.

Joshua Bell is a lot of fun to watch in the performance below, doused in sweat by the end of the first movement.  He really puts his whole body into his performance (such that the camera has to pull away from closeup at around the 16 minute mark!).  And it's endearing how he can't resist a little dance at the start of the third movement.

 


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Andrew, that beautiful impromptu is the first track on his Sibelius album.

Yeah, Sibelius' violin concerto is a real marvel. I'm glad that composers got away from the long-standing tradition of having a long orchestral exposition before the solo violin appears. Mendelssohn might have been the first, or among the first, of the major Romantic composers to do this (not that I necessarily mind a long exposition -- but I appreciate the evolution of the form). I can't recall if I mentioned this before, but Shostakovich's first v.c. is my favorite over all, and there are just a few measures (mostly the basses playing) before the violin enters. Britten's v.c. has a slightly longer exposition before the solo part begins, but it's still very short. I agree with you about the third movement in Sibelius' concerto; it's quite something.

I've seen a few videos of Bell performing and like the fact that he moves on stage -- nothing worse than a performer who stands as still as a Roman statue (though, there are some performers who gesticulate way too much). 

Here's Bell playing Bach at a D.C. subway station ... it takes a while, but someone finally recognizes him.

 

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I need to go back and listen to Shostakovich's two violin concerti again; I know on my chronological listen through his opuses (I think that's the correct plural - maybe?), I was far more moved by his cello concerti - especially the conclusion of his second one, so strange and haunting.

That video of Joshua Bell is delightful.  Encounters like that are one of the few reasons I miss big cities:  years ago, I was in Quebec City, and stumbled across an outdoor concert by Mark O'Connor, which was magical.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Andrew, I need to go back and listen to his cello concerti, as I've not heard them in a very long time. It'll be interesting to find out if I have a similar emotional response.

I know that urban commuters are often in a hurry, but if I heard someone playing Bach like that in a train station, even if I didn't know who it was, I'd certainly stop and listen for a while. 

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20 hours ago, Michael S said:

Andrew, I need to go back and listen to his cello concerti, as I've not heard them in a very long time. It'll be interesting to find out if I have a similar emotional response.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on his cello concerti when you get around to listening to them again.  

Meanwhile, I gave Sibelius' Third Symphony a first-ever listen and came away mostly positive but mildly to moderately ambivalent.  Reading on its background, I see that he spent three years on it, beginning shortly after he and his family moved out of Helsinki and into a spacious log home in the woods.  Sibelius candidly owns up to the autobiographical aspects of his symphonies, and it's easy to read the effects of this move into the Third.  Following on the heels of the emotive, climax-upon-climax Second, this feels way more serene and pastoral.  The relative lack of percussion until the third/final movement emphasizes this contrast as well.  This is also his most concise symphony thus far, 10 minutes shorter than the First, 20 minutes shorter than the Second.

I love the first movement with its brisk underpinning string melody running through its entirety, with the occasional overlay of a second melody, sometimes taken up by the strings and French horn but mostly by the woodwinds.  Unlike the finale of his Second Symphony, where it feels earned, the closed cadence "amen" at the end of the first movement felt out of place to me.

I equally enjoyed the andantino second movement, with the lovely tune that gets passed back and forth among duetting woodwinds.  I loved how it morphs into a stately 1-2-3 dance beat towards the middle, though here again, the ending didn't seem to mesh with the preceding minutes, feeling uncharacteristically dark.

The final movement has its charms, but in the sum of its parts, it didn't work for me.  I like the merry scherzo beginning, though it strikes me as overly derivative from Beethoven's 9th Symphony scherzo.  The more march-like finale has echoes of the splendid melody that ends Brahms' First Symphony, if not as derivative as the opening scherzo.  Overall, the fragmentary nature of this movement felt muddy and unfinished.

Still, the first two movements will have me returning to this symphony.

Here's the version I watched:  the Swedish Radio Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (who looks to be fresh out of high school!).

  


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Interesting impressions of the symphony, Andrew. I'll try to revisit it again soon and will reply later with my thoughts. In the meantime, here's something I just found online: a performance of Sibelius' Second by Paavo Jarvi and the NHK Orchestra from Japan. I've not watched the video yet, but I recall seeing the NHK play Brahms live at Walt Disney Hall years ago. They were impressive.

https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/ondemand/video/3004599/

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Thanks for sharing the NHK link; I'm listening to it as I type.  And my dad gave me the Berglund Sibelius cycle for my birthday - can't wait to give it a listen!

Meanwhile, finding an online Symphony 4 recording was a challenge.  I only found the Salonen version below, which is impeccably performed, though the video is a bit cheesy.  (At least the close-up of Sibelius' glaring eyes goes away at about the 90 second mark, never to return.)

But wow, what a fascinating symphony.  It might be my new favorite of his symphonies, even though it's the most unSibelian of the first four.  On first listen, I don't detect any earworm melodies, so it was more a matter of bathing in his soundscape.  Referring again to my handy Guide to Symphonic Music by Edward Downes, it was composed while Sibelius was facing a cancer scare in his 40s (malignant throat cancer, mercifully excised completely), and there definitely is a grim quality to it.

I love how the first movement starts with that gorgeous dark cello.  And wow, those distressed high-register violins at about the 7-minute mark.  There are only a couple of brief serene respites that reminded me of the "Going Home" melody from Dvorak's 9th.

Then, how curious that the scherzo is the second movement, but is far more restless and turbulent, rather than jokey.  The following largo movement has a yearning quality that verges on distraught.  The finale is so odd, verging on grotesque, hopping from xylophone to pizzicato to keening flute, before its abrupt funereal conclusion; it had a Shostakovich feel to it, though of course it far predates DS' compositional career.

 


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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And onwards to the Fifth!  Rather than commenting movement by movement, I'll just mention that after five symphonies, I'm noticing that the composer gives the windwinds a distinctive sound that I now think I could pick from a lineup.  And wow can his moods shift so rapidly:  in the gorgeous third movement, in the space of just a couple of minutes, the gestalt shifts from serene to playful to tumultuous to yearning (I love the trombone slides that pop up a couple of times, too).  

Every movement is a pleasure to listen to here, with a thrilling finale that leads to a most curious conclusion.  His knack for orchestration and ability to surprise are such a delight.  (Again, to mess with our heads, he reverses the placement of the slow movement and scherzo, and goes even one better by having the first movement meld into the second without a pause.)

Instead of another rendition by Salonen, I found one by his countryman (and erstwhile classmate) Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting the Oslo Philharmonic.  Saraste impresses me in giving a laid-back vibe, yet in full control.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22MLqBDuNbU

  


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Coming late to this thread, I'm just starting to listen to Symphony No. 1 above. In the first notes of that clarinet solo, I had a moment of confusion while I thought was listening to the main title theme from The Godfather.

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On to his 6th, and penultimate, symphony.  The composer himself conducted its first performance in 1923, four years after he'd completed his final revision of the 5th.  What a contrast between the two works; the Sixth seems a happier piece but with a coolness to it.  I love the murmuring string effect that plays through much of the first two movements.  His scherzo has a jaunty, frolicking quality to it in places, reminding me a bit of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream; though even when this movement has a galloping pace, it's a chilled-out gallop.  And the final movement of his 6th, like his 1st, ends softly.

Few options on YouTube, so I'll go again with the ever-reliable Salonen:

 


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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On 6/24/2020 at 7:35 AM, Andrew said:

That's funny - his music often strikes me as akin to 20th C film scores.  I wonder how strong his influence was on the likes of Steiner, Korngold, Herrmann, Nino Rota, et al?

They were all (Sibelius, Korngold, Steiner, Herrmann, etc.) influenced by Wagner at some point in their lives, so I would say that's the common link and why Sibelius can have a film score sound to his music.


"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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Andrew, it's nice to see you moving right along through Sibelius' symphonies. Only one more to go! Regarding the Fourth, it really is a unique piece. The second movement, marked allegro molto vivace, doesn't really seem molto vivace to me; similarly, the fourth movement, marked allegro, seems less propulsive than a real allegro, and even some of its sunnier moments feel relatively subdued. Of all the movements, I find the third, a largo, least successful (though I love how it ends so quietly!) -- if you compare it to, say, the slow movement of Shostakovich's Seventh, you can tell how much better Shostakovich was at symphonic writing. (Of course, these are two very different symphonies, and Sibelius was a fantastic composer, but there's great and then there's really great.) I agree that the string writing in the first movement is wonderful, and I love the mood shifts: from a somber beginning to a more enlightened tenor. There's also great horn writing in that first movement.

To me, Sibelius' Fourth is unique in his oeuvre -- and, to draw another comparison to Shostakovich -- I feel somewhat similarly about Shostakovich's Fourth and its place in his own symphony cycle. 

I still need to get back to Sibelius' Third and give it another listen. I should revisit the Sixth and Seventh too.

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On 7/3/2020 at 1:26 PM, Evan C said:

They were all (Sibelius, Korngold, Steiner, Herrmann, etc.) influenced by Wagner at some point in their lives, so I would say that's the common link and why Sibelius can have a film score sound to his music.

Ah, that makes sense.  Freakin' Wagner - was it Oscar Wilde who said he has his great moments and awful half-hours?  That's about how I've always felt about him (and that's not even digging into his anti-Semitism).

On 7/8/2020 at 11:53 PM, Michael S said:

...Of all the movements, I find the third, a largo, least successful (though I love how it ends so quietly!) -- if you compare it to, say, the slow movement of Shostakovich's Seventh, you can tell how much better Shostakovich was at symphonic writing. (Of course, these are two very different symphonies, and Sibelius was a fantastic composer, but there's great and then there's really great.)

Agree 100% on the Sibelius-Shostakovich comparison.  Listening to JS' symphonic cycle has definitely deepened my appreciation for his craft, but he doesn't consistently wow me like DS.  Whether it's the latter's symphonies, concerti, chamber works, or song cycles, they almost always feel ground-breaking.

I expect I'll dive into Sibelius' 7th next week...a crazy busy time at work has kept me from it so far.

Edited by Andrew

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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And finally the 7th Symphony.  It's bonkers: there's a 2-year interval between the premieres of the 5th and 6th, and merely a year between the 6th and 7th.  And after that, no more symphonies for the last 33 years of his life.  It's one of many 'what ifs' in musical history:  what if Schubert had lived more than 31 years, Mozart more than 35?  What if Sibelius hadn't been hobbled by depression, alcoholism, and profound insecurity; how many more symphonies could we have been privileged with?

Nonetheless, he finishes with beauty and splendid orchestration in a small package; performance times for this piece seem to run between 20-25 minutes, compressed into a single movement.  (Sibelius waffled over whether to call this a true symphony or a symphonic fantasia; the former label stuck.)  The piece starts in a manner that feels autumnal; there's even some Brahmsian brass in the first few minutes, though this is a Sibelius piece in its soundscape through and through.  Overall, the mood feels upbeat, with a couple of carefree scherzo sections in the middle.  And what grand fanfares in the last several minutes, before a lovely, (and on my first listen in many years) unexpectedly sudden conclusion.

For a change of pace from the Finnish conductors, I decided to share a performance from that great British institution, the Proms:

 

And I just remembered that American conductor Joshua Weilerstein did a walk-through of this symphony in May on his podcast.  Time for me to go back and give it a listen, but I'll share the link here: https://stickynotespodcast.libsyn.com/sibelius-symphony-no-7


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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