‘A polonaise for polar bears’

Anyone who recognizes the title of today’s post will know in an instant the subject of my choice.

If you had to push me on my favourite violin concerto, the answer would be Beethoven’s one day – and Sibelius’s another. As the temperature drops, my thoughts turn to northern Europe and so to the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). ‘A polonaise for polar bears’ is how the legendary music writer Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940) described the final movement of Sibelius’s only concerto for solo instrument and orchestra.

Sibelius had himself always aspired to becoming a virtuoso violinist, but it just never happened that way, probably because he wasn’t fortunate enough to have access to good enough teachers in the countryside (an excuse my children will doubtless lay at my door one day). Nowadays, Sibelius is best known for works such as ‘Finlandia’ and the Karelia Suite’, the former virtually becoming a national emblem for that country, as well as his seven symphonies, the fifth of which is highly popular; but all of them are characterised by broad sweeping themes, often beginning with a brief melody and building into fabulous final moments (listen to the closing movements of the 2nd and 5th if you can).

The temperature may be dropping here, but apparently the average temperature in Finland at the time Sibelius was born was just 4C, and -17C on the day of his birth in December. The countryside was a fairly bleak place in which to live, and it can’t have been easy for the young boy, who was brought up by an early-widowed mother, her mother, and two aunts. Throw in the enormous political difficulties with Russia at that time, and you have a dire context for survival.

To cap it all, his marriage later produced five daughters, all delightful I’m sure, but there is a conspicuous lack of male company here, which may account for his partiality to cigars and vodka for much of his life. There is definitely a cold darkness to be found in some of his music, especially his 4th symphony, which is plain grim in its mood for specific reasons, but the opposite is generally more true; and Sibelius was enormously popular in England and the US, reaping the financial benefits of the recent invention of recording.

This concerto did not have an auspicious debut: Sibelius had to revise it, because it was just far too difficult, and it was much better received when Richard Strauss conducted the revision in 1905. That it remains difficult is not hard to see, especially in this final movement, where the soloist is kept busy the whole way through. The score is marked ‘Allegro, ma non tanto’, which means ‘quick, but not too much’; so interpretations tend to vary enormously.

The nickname which Tovey ascribed is perfect: right from its opening seconds there is a menacing beat, while the solo violin dances relentlessly above the orchestra (building to an exquisite moment at about 2:08, which is later repeated, so stay with it). Interestingly, the word ‘allegro’ has a more general meaning in English, closer to good-humoured or high spirits, and most soloists have a tendency to attack this passage too heavily. The result can be harsh, even brash, and worst of all the dancing and melody are sacrificed.

Maybe it takes the female touch to get the balance right, which is what American born Rachel Barton Pine achieves here: it is pure and tender, merry and high-spirited, whilst not lacking in tension. The closing bars are wonderful – listen out for how Sibelius has the violin soaring up, while bringing the orchestra crashing down. It is an exuberant account.

p.s. Although Sibelius had numerous operations to clear up a throat tumour, cigars and vodka obviously didn’t harm him too much in the long term. At the time of his birth, the life expectancy in that cruel climate was barely 36…Sibelius died at 91.






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