Before writing his first symphony, Sibelius had already explored orchestral possibilities in his symphonic poem Kullervo, composed in 1892. Kullervo is an ambitious, large-scale, choral work lasting well over an hour and has been identified with a resurgence in Finnish cultural identity. A recording, with Sir Colin conducting, is available on LSO Live.

For his First Symphony (1899), Sibelius scaled back on Kullervo to concentrate on a more tightly structured proposition. If ‘symphony’ implies a blue print, Sibelius adheres to it through the conventional four-movement form consisting of an Andante-Allegro opening, followed by a slow movement, a scherzo, and a fast finale. The work begins with an extraordinary solo for clarinet (played peerlessly here by Andrew Marriner). The score is scintillating, full of shifts of mood and evocative woodwind motifs. The music is not overtly programmatic and yet has a programmatic feel. Finland’s brilliant landscape seems palpable – in this at least, the world of Kullervo is very much present.

By the time he got to his Fourth Symphony in 1911, Sibelius had done a bit more living. The premiere was in Helsinki, with the composer conducting. A much more introverted work than the First Symphony, it was waggishly nicknamed ‘Barkbrōd’ (bark bread), a reference to the famines of the nineteenth century when Finns were forced to eat the bark from trees to survive. It is full of dark beauty, and much is made of the context in which it was written, i.e. that Sibelius had paid for earlier excesses by developing a life-threatening illness. Fortunately, an operation saved him, but the symphony is often seen as a reflection on the composer’s own dark times (as well as presaging the collective ones to come in 1914).

Like the First Symphony, the Fourth opens with a significant instrumental solo, this time for cello. Thereafter, it is a wholly different, more reflective, experience than that of the First. Sir Colin Davis and the LSO capture brilliantly the light and bombast of one, and the sombre qualities of the other.


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