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Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 marked a major step in the composer's development, and with its nationalist themes remains one of his most popular works. It is here performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård, their first recording together. The vast span of the single-movement Symphony No 7 completes a thrilling programme.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Then, in June 1900, a letter arrived from an anonymous admirer: ‘It is time you travelled. You will spend the late autumn and winter in Italy, a land where one can learn about cantabile, proportion and harmony, the plastic arts and the symmetry of lines, where everything is beautiful—even that which is ugly. After all, recall what Italy meant to the development of Tchaikovsky and to Richard Strauss.’ It was not long before the author identified himself as Baron Axel Carpelan. A far from wealthy yet extraordinarily persuasive patron of the arts, Carpelan (who was to become a trusted friend and influential mentor) had gathered together sufficient funds to free the composer from his teaching commitments and to enable him to take his family to Italy. During the late winter and spring of 1901, Sibelius rented a villa in Rapallo on the Bay of Genoa, and it was there that the seeds were sown for what was to become the Second Symphony.
Initially unsure of his next step, however, Sibelius flirted with various projects, among them works inspired by Pushkin’s drama The Stone Guest (based on the Spanish legend of Don Juan) and the Divine Comedy of Dante, as well as a tone poem in four movements labelled Festivals. Worse still, history repeated itself: his six-year-old daughter Ruth also contracted typhus. Overcome by the strain, the composer promptly took himself off for a fortnight in Rome, where he visited art galleries and listened to Palestrina masses: he had effectively abandoned his long-suffering but loyal wife, Aino, and left her alone to nurse the stricken child back to health.
In early May, the family returned to Finland via Florence, Vienna and finally Prague (where Sibelius met Dvořák and Suk). The bulk of the symphony was written that autumn, and Sibelius’s correspondence with Carpelan from this period confirms the work’s birth pangs: ‘I have been in the throes of a bitter struggle with this symphony. Now the picture is clearer, and I am proceeding under full sail. Soon I hope to have something to dedicate to you. That is if you are pleased with the work.’
The first performance was originally scheduled for January 1902, but numerous revisions (as well as a mild attack of influenza) meant it had to be postponed. Sibelius himself eventually directed the world premiere, on 8 March 1902; the Helsinki public greeted the new work rapturously (a further three, sold-out performances took place that same month), and to this day the work remains the most popular of the composer’s seven symphonies. Given that Finland was still under the oppressive rule of the Russian Empire and Sibelius’s music had already played a vital role in the nation’s quest for greater self-determination and the ultimate goal of independence, it is perhaps not surprising that many critics were quick to ascribe to the symphony various programmes of a strongly nationalistic flavour. Here, for instance, is the reaction (from a newspaper article) of one of Sibelius’s doughtiest and most eloquent champions, the conductor and composer Robert Kajanus:
The Andante [slow movement] strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustices that threaten at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent … The scherzo gives a picture of frenetic preparation. Everyone does his bit, every fibre vibrates … the finale develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to arouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.
When another Finnish conductor, Georg Schnéevoigt, introduced the symphony in similar terms before its Boston premiere, Sibelius wrote to him to deny any such political or patriotic links, and that was the view he continued to stick to in his later years: ‘My symphonies consist of music thought up and set down purely as a musical expression, without any literary basis. As far as I am concerned, music begins where the word ends.’ We know, too, that Sibelius was especially gratified by some glowing comments from the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, who corresponded with him not long after the work’s Stockholm premiere in October 1902: ‘You have reached into the deepest depths of the unconscious and the ineffable, and brought forth something of a miracle. What I suspected has been proved true: for me you emerge as the foremost, indeed the only major figure at this moment.’
So familiar is the Second Symphony and so easily intoxicating is its ‘combination of Italianate warmth and Nordic intensity’ (to quote the eminent Sibelian Robert Layton), we should not be blinded to its considerable strengths; and it has a pivotal position in the composer’s development, standing as it does at the crossroads between those descriptive offerings (some of them inspired by the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala) from the previous decade (Kullervo, En saga, Karelia and the Four Legends) and the ever more radically questing symphonic statements to come. As in the case of its E minor predecessor, it is the Second Symphony’s opening movement which has received the greatest scrutiny and praise; understandably so, for Sibelius’s ingenious treatment of his material in what is essentially a basic sonata-form design remains a continuing source of admiration and wonder. Indeed, it is unhelpful to talk in terms of traditional first and second subjects (what exactly constitutes the latter has been the topic of much heated debate over the years), so subtle are the organic processes at work. As Sibelius’s foremost biographer, Erik Tawaststjerna, so eloquently puts it, Sibelius is ‘no longer content to pour new material into predetermined moulds but like the Viennese masters themselves thinks in creative terms of the very form itself.’ Repeated string chords followed by a chirruping woodwind idea introduce an exposition of formidable thematic fertility. An ensuing development section rises to a majestic climax (listen out for some powerful brass sonorities) and then promptly merges into the recapitulation, at the start of which the opening woodwind figure combines with other material from the exposition to breathtaking effect. What a marvellously concentrated essay this is, its inner workings consistently illuminated by symphonic thinking of an altogether exalted order!
The brooding slow movement commences arrestingly with a timpani roll followed by a long pizzicato passage for cellos and double basses, over which a pair of bassoons eventually voice a lugubrious lament. A contrasting idea for strings in a radiant F sharp major offers enchantment to the ear and on its second appearance is endowed with memorable romantic intensity. The movement’s linking dialogue, punctuated by angry brass outbursts, increases in desperation as we reach a grim coda that ends with two defiant pizzicato string chords. String writing of furious bustle typifies the scurrying outer portions of the Vivacissimo scherzo, whereas the trio section (marked ‘lento e soave’) is a memorably tranquil affair in which the solo oboe tenderly caresses a melody of rare loveliness and daring originality (the opening phrase repeats the same B flat crotchet no fewer than nine times). A surging transition plunges us straight into an unashamedly heroic finale dominated by two ideas: the strings’ universal, stirring big tune; and a more mysterious theme in the wind heard against a hypnotically repeated background of running quavers in the lower strings. On its second (and final) appearance, the latter idea builds up enormous tension before toppling over into one last mighty climax, after which the symphony concludes with a brass-topped coda of blazing affirmation.
When Sibelius directed the premiere of his seventh (and last) symphony in March 1924, it bore the title Fantasia sinfonica. The composer had long been pondering the true nature of the medium, and in a diary entry dated 18 October 1914 he had written: ‘I wonder whether this name “symphony” has done more harm than good to my symphonies. I’m really planning to let my inner being—my fantasy—speak. One needs to broaden the concept.’ Within a couple of months he was jotting down ideas for sketches which he labelled Fantasia I and Fantasia II, and which in time would form the nucleus of the last three symphonies and of Tapiola (1926). The first real clue to the character of the Seventh probably comes in a letter to Carpelan from 20 May 1919, when Sibelius was still agonizing over the second (and final) revision of his Fifth Symphony: ‘The 7th Symphony: joy of life and vitality, with appassionato passages. In three movements—the last a Hellenic rondo. All this with due reservation … the plans may possibly be altered according to the development of the musical ideas. As usual, I am a slave to my themes and submit to their demands.’ The three movements referred to are most likely the sections of the symphony marked Adagio, Vivacissimo and Allegro moderato. But in the final, indivisible entity, Sibelius’s astonishingly subtle mastery of organic growth and seamless tempo relations (to say nothing of his command of formal innovation) means that is pretty much impossible for the listener to perceive exactly where one section might begin and another one end.
Of course, in his tireless quest for symphonic unity Sibelius had employed such procedures before: one immediately thinks of the remarkable concluding ‘scherzo-cum-finale’ of the Third and (above all, perhaps) the tremendous opening movement of the Fifth Symphony. But in the case of the Seventh, the composer’s own analogy, wherein he likens the process of symphonic form to the formation of a river bed, strikes home with acute resonance: ‘[A river] is composed of innumerable tributaries, brooks and streams, and eventually broadens majestically into the sea, but it is the movement of the water that determines the shape of the river bed.’ Just so are the Seventh’s structural foundations fashioned by the flow of the musical ideas, entirely liberated from any notion of stale convention or perceived symphonic ‘tradition’.
Strings solemnly intone an ascending scale, a strikingly simple device that ushers in a powerful opening Adagio section. This contains elements that form the nucleus of all that is to follow, most notably of the noble trombone theme that will reappear twice more, and form the symphony’s structural backbone. Soon, the pace begins to quicken imperceptibly, and suddenly we find ourselves propelled into a dancing, wonderfully airy Vivacissimo scherzo. Then, after the first, crisis-ridden appearance of the trombone motif (vividly accompanied by chromatic strings boiling like an angry sea), the key of C major reasserts itself as we pass through an enchanting landscape of vernal freshness (Allegro molto moderato is the marking for this pastoral rondo). Eventually, though, fragments from the Vivacissimo section briefly re-emerge, before the final—and most majestic—entry of the motto theme. The music now steadily gains intensity to attain a quite overwhelming climax, at the height of which the strings passionately recall a descending figure from the opening Adagio. After a further, poignant reminiscence from hesitant flute and bassoon, the work ends with a hard-won C major crescendo: a terse gesture, utterly characteristic of the symphony’s spellbinding and entire cogency.
Andrew Achenbach © 2015