Playing God in C major

To conduct one Sibelius symphony is a challenge, but all seven in three days? By Edward Seckerson
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The scale of C major. Our musical centre of gravity. Constant, familiar. Reassuring. Like coming home. After almost 26 years of symphonic journeying, Sibelius laid down that scale once more in the sure and certain belief that it symbolised new beginnings for him. It was as good as any place to begin his last named symphony. And as good a place as any to set out on an exploration of all seven. Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra did so last weekend over four concerts. And the chronology was irrelevant. A coupling of the First and Fourth symphonies, or Tapiola and the Second, or the Sixth and Fifth, juxtaposed their difference in a way that served only to highlight the amazing evolution of style. The unanswered questions. The dichotomies.

Sibelius sought order, balance, concision, a classicist's refinement of purpose and form in all things musical. But he drew his inspiration from an environment as wild, as majestic, as hostile, as enigmatic as any on earth. So he harnessed the elements. He found logic in the illogical, order in disorder - he reconciled the irreconcilable. In musical terms, he played God. And we're still trying to understand him. The rising C major scale that opens the Seventh Symphony is a gesture so spare, so simple, as to seem almost retrogressive. But listen up. As it rises, and chord is placed upon chord in diaphanous progression, it's as if the earth breathes. it's an act of creation in itself. And it portends much.

Or should. Neeme Jarvi began his cycle impatiently. The evolution of this opening page was not clear. The question must be posed if we are even to hope for answers. But Jarvi pressed on through the searching exposition, through the wondrous string polyphony (the passage that undoubtedly prompted Koussevitzky to dub the symphony Sibelius' Parsifal), into a vivacissimo fair set to proceed at the speed of light. The earth was not breathing so much as hyperventilating. The Seventh needs to hurry slowly: the answer as to why Sibelius failed to complete an eighth symphony in the last 30 years of his long life is buried here.

But the Gothenburg Symphony had established their credentials. This isn't a spectacular or especially big-boned sound; it isn't always immaculate, that isn't the priority. But it's honest, real. Fine, well-tuned strings, ruddy personable woodwinds (forthright troll-like bassoons), a touch of paganism in the brass. Very primary. They seek to play, not to cultivate, this music. Take the solo clarinet at the start of the First Symphony: a fleshly character in the drama, not some pallid romantic observer. Nothing shy or retiring about his or anyone else's playing. Which certainly paid dividends in the extraordinary Fourth Symphony, the symphony that passeth all understanding. There can be nowhere for anyone to hide here, least of all the conductor. In marked contrast to his Seventh, Jarvi found the space - the elusive Largo theme of the slow movement (heard in full only once) rising nobly from its elliptic and fragmentary surroundings - but not the atmosphere or the underlying logic. Instability - the feeling that this whole edifice might just break up at any time - was the one aspect of the piece that Jarvi had fully grasped. It wasn't enough. And there was something fundamental missing in the sound, too: a bass line that could be felt as well as heard. Maybe Jarvi's basses should have been placed on risers. Those deep, unfathomable pedal notes are so much a part of Sibelius's vocabulary. So is rhythm, of course - pulsing, driving, elemental rhythm. The Third Symphony breaks new ground with it: invigorating ostinatos are all that stand between us and symphonic inertia. For the first time in the cycle, Jarvi and his players were visibly, physically, one. Not a spare ounce of flesh on the sound - lean, hungry, in tempo.

The best of this cycle - like that Third - was very good indeed. The least of it was oddly uninvolving. And it had to do - or seemed to - with the level of Jarvi's physical engagement with his players. On Sunday afternoon, he stood back from Tapiola, he stood back from the Second Symphony. It was hard to fault either on musical grounds - but it was equally hard to get excited about them. Tapiola was coolly objective, the kind of performance that stares you out but doesn't draw you in. The Second Symphony was Jarvi on automatic pilot - until, that is, his Gothenburgers found heart and soul in the finale's stirring nationalism and flew with it.

Atmosphere, drama, subjectivity - the Jarvi we know and admire - returned with the final concert. Pohjola's Daughter was incandescent, the Sixth Symphony finely nuanced, transparent, spring-like in tone and character. Sibelius in love. Liberated. Rather like the protracted dissonance at the close of the Fifth Symphony. Brassy Gothenburg trumpets and trombones duly hit the spot here. But still resonating in the memory is the extra time and space and fulfilment Jarvi allowed himself in the closing measures of the central Andante. It's the old story - when it's personal, it's memorable.