wed 22/11/2017

Sibelius's Eighth: pages from a lost symphony? | reviews, news & interviews

Sibelius's Eighth: pages from a lost symphony?

Sibelius's Eighth: pages from a lost symphony?

Fully realised orchestral sketches in performance give us a taste of a master's lost work

Top of the manuscript recently come to light which may be Sibelius's music for his Eighth SymphonyMarkus Jokela HS/Helsingen Sanomat

The rest, it seems, is not to remain quite silence from the 32 years Jean Sibelius lived on after completing his last major work, the astonishing incidental music for a production of The Tempest in 1925. There are a handful of smaller-scale pieces, and the hope that an Eighth Symphony apparently ready for publication in 1933 was not entirely consumed by fire in the living-room grate of the composer's humble home outside Järvenpää, as one of his grandsons reported.

Various speculations over fragments and lines in manuscripts over the years are as nothing compared to three fully realised orchestral sketches which have just come to light, the quality of which we can now judge for ourselves. The path leads from New York music critic Alex Ross's blog to an article in the English-language version of Helsingin Sanomat by Vesa Sirén. We learn how the two excellent conductors of Helsinki's main orchestras, Sakari Oramo at the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and John Storgårds of the Helsinki Philharmonic, were agog to try out how it sounded. Which Storgårds and the HPO did; you can hear the results at 2 mins 9 secs into the film on this webpage.

As Oramo remarks, this is "archaic dissonance", in other words those clashes which feel right in Sibelius's late style. The first example especially takes us on as much of a strange new journey as the beginning of Elgar's Third Symphony. Undoubtedly there isn't enough material here to work up a complete performing version such as Anthony Payne controversially did with the Elgar, but it's good to have just a few more of those "mosaic pieces", as Sibelius put it, "thrown down from God's floor". Would it be asking too much for another superb Finnish interpreter, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, to feature the fragments alongside the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies in his forthcoming BBC Symphony Orchestra Sibelius cycle concert? That would be quite a UK premiere.

Would it be asking too much for another superb Finnish interpreter, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, to feature the fragments in his forthcoming Sibelius cycle concert?

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Unfortunately this whole story has been vastly exaggerated by the media, who see the magic words 'Eighth Symphony' as a sure way to gain headlines and column inches. I have studied these manuscript fragments (all of which are in the National Library of Finland) and there is NOTHING in them that ties any of these sketches definitively to the Eighth Symphony - and Dr Timo Virtanen, who prepared the score fragments from what are in some cases very indistinct rough jottings, has never claimed anything of the kind. If they do indeed have any sort of link to the symphony (maybe a 40 or 50 percent chance), they are still very preliminary and cannot be said to represent in meaningful any way how the final work would have sounded. The sketches have been skilfully worked up by Dr Virtanen, and are of course interesting; but please keep things in perspective and forget the headline-hunting. Andrew Barnett Chairman, UK Sibelius Society

Believe it or not, Andrew, as a writer in some kind of limbo between media and musicology, I posted this not in pursuit of headlining but entirely out of personal interest, based on what I heard in the excerpts conducted by John Storgards. I wanted others to watch/listen too, and make up their own minds. I don't hear the music as going beyond the Seventh Symphony, Tapiola or the Tempest music, but certainly of that ilk and as a result interesting in its own right. I would hope that we're on the same side here, and there will be no unnecessary musicological wrangling.

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