Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sibelius Violin Concerto

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in d minor
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Sibelius styled himself a “dreamer and poet of nature…I love the mysterious sounds of the fields and forests, water and mountains.” One is struck by the visual image conjured by the mention of Sibelius’ boyhood habit of perching on a huge rock by a lake to play his violin, a veritable Nordic (violin-playing) Pan. Fierce nationalism and reverence for Finnish history and myth, particularly the epic Kalevala, were also fundamental ingredients in his musical creations.

The breeziness, breadth and freedom of a young man in his prime – this is what is heard in Sibelius’ first two symphonies, bursting with the indestructibility and self-assurance of youth. A distinct transformation takes place in the third symphony, however, and the years of change between the second and third symphonies are precisely those during which Sibelius crafted his only violin concerto, written in 1903, rewritten, and published in 1905. Sibelius suffered from ear disease that threatened him with total deafness. The “Nordic faun” was forced to come down off his rock to face his own mortality, and the ensuing compositions reflected some morbidity, but more importantly, reflected a refinement and conciseness of statement, a control which yielded music of a more individual and personal nature.

Sibelius began to show increasing respect for conventional forms, and despite its modern character, the violin concerto belongs to the romantic tradition of the 19th century. The rhapsodic mood of the first movement (Allegro moderato) is set in the melodic sweep of the first theme, spread out over thirty bars in a chant by the solo violin over a somber background of muted and divisi violins, soon echoed by the woodwinds. A second, more lyrical subject is introduced by the dark sound of the celli and bassoons, later taken up by the soloist. These themes grow and develop, providing a background for virtuoso display which always remains an organic part of the whole.

The second movement (Adagio di molto) starts with a poignant phrase in thirds for the woodwinds, and the violin begins a theme of tender melancholy. The movement moves towards a great climax with the violin providing decorative figurations over an orchestral treatment of the theme, suddenly dying away.

The final movement (Allegro ma non tanto) is a strongly rhythmic rondo often perceived as a “Danse Macabre,” but interpreted by the English conductor and program annotator Donald Tovey as a “polonaise for polar bears.” Violins and celli introduce a second theme, and the solo violin displays a seemingly endless variety of violinistic fireworks against the darker, more earthbound colors of the orchestral winds and strings.