Magazine article Gramophone

Osmo Vanska: Andrew Mellor Talks to the Finn about His Second Recording of Sibelius's Fourth

Magazine article Gramophone

Osmo Vanska: Andrew Mellor Talks to the Finn about His Second Recording of Sibelius's Fourth

Article excerpt

Here are some things we know about Sibelius's life in 1909. We know he'd undergone an operation to remove a tumour in his throat the year before, and been ordered to abstain from his two most steadfast companions, alcohol and tobacco. We know he'd been informed in May of that year, just as he started to commit his Fourth Symphony to paper, that his debts now amounted to a colossal 100,000 Finnish marks. We know that once more he'd tried to escape it all--travelling to Karelia with his brother-in-law, experiencing the bleak colourlessness and bleached light of the outpost area surrounding Mount Koli.

What we can't know, for sure, is to what extent those things informed the pencil-sketch desolation of the Fourth Symphony itself. 'I respect people who talk about landscape--obviously it must be there--but I am not a guy who sees any landscape in the Fourth Symphony.' So says Osmo Vanska, who has re-recorded the piece in Minnesota 16 years on from his first taping in Lahti. 'For me it's about a guy who was struggling and who was opening up about his emotional life--about his frustrations and disappointments.'

Vanska's very personal, emotional analysis of the piece can take you by surprise. 'It's like the Second Symphony being about Finland's fight with Russia,' he continues. 'Yes, absolutely, but isn't it really one individual's fight? Nations aren't emotional entities, human beings are. That's why the Fourth touches us, because we can all find ourselves there--an individual trying to survive.'

A surprise, because of Vanska's famous bottom-line insistence that nothing in Sibelius's scores be romanticised. That, with his forensic regard for articulation, has made him the most respected Sibelius interpreter on the planet. I know before meeting Vanska that he'll repeat his often-aired beliefs that you can't play around with Sibelius's tempo markings. I know that he'll say it's all there in the score, you just have to trust Sibelius and follow him to the letter.

And he does say those things--and that he uses the same score and markings in Minnesota as he used in Lahti. But he also talks of his understanding of Sibelius's emotional world in a way in which you might fairly assume he didn't--or couldn't--16 years ago. 'I know a little bit more about Sibelius now, but a little bit more about life, too.' So what of the odd, faltering endings that spike each of the symphony's movements? 'He says his things and then he stops.' Like those eight unshaped mezzo-forte chords that drop the symphony into a deadening final silence. 'It's marked dolce, so there should be tears, but nothing else: don't slow down, don't diminuendo.' And the narrative? 'Maybe he came to terms with his destiny: he thought he was going to die, but the whole world is not going to stop. …

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