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Vienna at Carnegie: An All-Sibelius Program

By Caleb Easterly 

Vienna Philharmonic Carnegie

The Vienna Philharmonic kicked off their three-night run at Carnegie Hall on Friday, performing Sibelius’s First, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies. The concert had been promoted as “[showing] Sibelius’s journey from youthful intensity to Olympian refinement,” so I was surprised to learn it was the opposite – the concert began with the Seventh and ended with the First.

With huge gestures Lorin Maazel dispelled any doubt of his vitality at age 82. Like the conductor, every member of the orchestra showed the high standards of Vienna. The dark warmth of the strings struck me from the opening notes of the Seventh Symphony; I have never heard such sound this side of the Atlantic. The bleakly stoic brass hurled great columns of sound into the hall. The lyrical winds, although often used as a single organism by Sibelius, shone in their solos – the despairing clarinet solo that opens the First Symphony was peerless. The timpani supported the same clarinet solo, managing the barest roll, while at other times they threatened to knock Maazel off the conductor’s stand.

As unexpected as was the program order, it was fascinating to see Sibelius’s life in reverse: the Seventh at only 20 minutes, the Fifth at 30, and the First at 40. Themes in the Seventh are thin strands, weaving a dense, complex cloth, while the themes of the First are richly romantic, stout and unwavering. Even so, the claims that Tchaikovsky and other Romantics heavily influenced Sibelius’s First dissipate with every moment instantly recognized as Sibelian: the elemental “northern-ness”, the bleak virtuosity, the jagged silences, the woodwind choirs.

The Seventh seems to constantly shift under your feet; tiny motifs come and go but subtly tie the whole piece together. This monumental deconstruction of symphonic form never escapes the singular loneliness etched into every note of the Adagio opening. Even the final majestic C major chord is racked by a B-natural until the absolute last moment.

The Fifth is the most popular of Sibelius’s Symphonies. It opens organically from the air and draw us in, at once forbidding and inviting. Maazel conducted with great emotion, with less “beating” than I have ever seen from an American conductor. At times, he appeared to be playing the orchestra like a violin, but even with his extreme gestures, the orchestra stayed miraculously together throughout the entire concert.

The most rewarding moment of the Fifth for many people (and the most well known) is the stately horn theme. Sibelius called this his “swan theme”, dedicated to a formation of sixteen swans he saw flying over his solitary home. This grand theme does not stay still for long. At the end the chords shatter like glass, building to an unbearable tension, one of the most extraordinary moments I have ever experienced at a concert. The sky opens up and at the orchestra becomes an effervescent being: as Sibelius said, “for an instant God opens his door, and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” But in typical Sibelian fashion, the music retreats and ends in 6 blank chords. The endless silences between them, like no other moment in music, seem like an eternity.