L. Neil Smith's
Number 259, February 15, 2004

Marriage, Nipples, and Sheep

Listening Session: Sibelius
by Ken Holder

Exclusive to TLE

Back 25 or so years ago I bought a boxed set of the Sibelius Symphonies. As was my custom with new LPs (remember them?) I was playing through all of them in case there was a defect so I could take them right back to the record store for replacement. It so happened that a new lady friend was visiting, and after listening to 4 or 5 LP sides of Sibelius' music, she turned to me and said "This is the sexiest music I've ever heard!" Later, she undressed.

Well, you may not have the same thing happen to you but I'm going to recommend that same set—on CD this time. The musical performances by the Utah Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maurice Abravanel are pretty good, but what this set really has going for it are two things: 1) It was recorded by Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz (a.k.a. Elite Recordings, Inc.), and 2) the performances took place inside the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Mormon Tabernacle has fabulous acoustics, giving a rich, warm, and enveloping support for the sounds made by the Utah Symphony, which had been playing concerts in the building for years and knew just how to project for maximum effect.

Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz have one of the best track records in the world for making good-sounding recordings. By "good-sounding" I mean "realistic". They put the listener in that proverbal "best seat in the house" (even if that seat is atop a 20-foot step-ladder 10-feet behind the conductor!). Early in my LP-bying career I developed a handy rule-of-thumb when deciding between competing recordings of the same work: unless there are really compelling reasons to do otherwise, buy the one engineered by Aubort/Nickrenz/Elite.

This particular set of the 7 Symphonies from Finnish composer Jan Sibelius was recorded in 1978 for Vanguard Everyman Classics. The acoustics and the "point-of-listen" (analogous to the "point-of-view of a camera) are absolutely perfect for his yearning, longing, and yes, very horny (in the sense that he uses the horns to great effect as well as in the erotic sense) and extremely sexy music. Don't listen to it all at once, friends, who knows what might happen.

I find the music of Sibelius fascinating and bizarre. He speaks with his own voice, a voice like no other, and I frequently think "I have no idea where he's going with this, by what a wonderful journey!" He tends to use melodic fragments that somehow, sometimes come right out and turn into a staggeringly beautiful melody, and other times just haunt you with their possibilities. Oh, did I mention the orgasmic build-up to those overwhelming climaxes? Yes, he does that, too. You "hear" the vast Finnish forests and "feel" the icy wind blowing snow into drifts, too, if you want to continue with this only slightly imaginative metaphor.

His most popular and most performed symphony is Number 2. It begins with a throbbing melodic fragment in the winds and strings, and builds from this tentative-sounding beginning into an impressive climax. The 2nd movement is completely mysterious with plucked strings running in the background, and another yearning, longing theme slowly building up until the tension is almost unbearable, punctuated by horn calls sounding as if from a far distance over icy snow. The trumpet player gets to show off his lyrical playing abilities. This all leads up to a soft conclusion ... sort-of. Mysterious is the word throughout.

The 3rd movement starts off with busy scurring throughout the orchestra, playing melodic fragments that seem somehow related to all that has gone before in ways that are't really clear. Things once again build up as the tension slowly increases (with occasional stops and starts) until, just when you think things can't get any more intense, a tremendous climax builds up until it is finally released in a glorious melody which is the 4th movement (played with no pause at the end of the 3rd), which just carries you on until you finally fall-down spent, rejuvinated by the grandeur and powerful rejoycing that has been going on, full-tilt, for gawd nose how long. Amazing.

The other 6 symphonies have similar journeys. You never know where he's taking you until you get there, and then sometimes you don't know quite how you got there, but you know you had a great ride!

Jan Sibelius: The Seven Symphonies

The Set under review:
Utah Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maurice Abravanel
Vanguard Classics 3131
Buy at Amazon.com

Alternate sets, known to be good:

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Jarvi
BIS CD-622
The little Bis company (once a one-man operation) manages to make some of the best (most realistic) sounding recordings you can find, with the original dynamic range preserved intact, something you almost never get to hear. Bis has for many years been running a project to record all of the music of Sibelius.
Buy at Amazon.com

Iceland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Petri Sakari
Naxos 8505179
Okay, I've never heard this, but I'd love to hear a set of these works played by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra!
Buy at Amazon.com

Ken Holder, a harmless drudge, retired to a life of bliss in the country, where he was going to spend his days listening to music. Instead, he finds himself in a constant scramble to keep from starving to death, and, in the winter, to keep from freezing to death (it got down to about 6-degrees Fahrenheit last evening). In his spare time he edits The Libertarian Enterprise and walks the dog (not at the same time). He wants to own a Firefly-class starship when he grows up, or at least crew in one.

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