SIBELIUS The Swan of Tuonela
In The Swan of Tuonela, part of a suite based on the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, Sibelius depicts a Casanova-like young man’s attempt to slay the swan of a caliginous underworld. The score is headed with the inscription: “Tuonela, the land of death, the Hell of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a large river with black waters and a rapid current, on which the Swan of Tuonela floats majestically, singing.”
From that moment we are at Sibelius’s creative mercy. Welcome to this spectral realm: The swan emerges on a glassy river that guards the land of death. Above a superlatively scored bed of strings that are painfully—exquisitely—held, the English horn sings its plaintive song. After a glimpse of sunlight from the harp the music brightens, flickering for a moment. But this glow is soon extinguished by unearthly desolation. The swan glides back into the darkness and its song fades over a quiet drum heartbeat. We are left in vaporous Tuonela as icy strings tremor col legno (with the wood of the bow), softly quivering in the gloom.
What a finish to a work written so near the start of Sibelius’s musical life. Ever the enchanting storyteller, he saw this miraculously imagined tone poem through to the very end; it was performed at Sibelius’s funeral at his behest.
SIBELIUS Violin Concerto
In no violin concerto is the soloist’s first note—delicately dissonant and off the beat—more beautiful. The concerto moves into a daring sequence of disparate ideas that are boldly explored and rearranged. Then follows the second movement Adagio, one of the most moving pages Sibelius ever achieved. It begins gently, leading to the entry of the solo violin with a melody of vast breadth in tones that touch us deeply. Sibelius never found such a melody again: This is a farewell. The finale has famously been described as “a polonaise for polar bears.” The charmingly aggressive main theme is enlivened by accompaniment in the timpani against the strings. The rhythm becomes more and more giddily inventive, especially in the reckless, across-the-beat bravura embellishment the soloist fires across the themes. It builds in drama and ends in syncopated brilliance.
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 3, Rhenish
The Rhenish Symphony begins with one of Schumann’s most glorious themes, a powerfully forward-thrusting idea, part of whose energy is in its artful cross-rhythm.“Morning on the Rhine” was Schumann’s original title for the second movement Scherzo, an agreeably galumphing country dance coupled with a rather brooding trio. The pace relaxes still more for the next section, a middle tempo intermezzo—an original genre with Schumann. The symphony’s stunning fourth movement is a musical monument to northern Europe’s then-largest Gothic building, the cathedral in Cologne. Then the finale, which begins by being uncomplicatedly cheery, gradually reveals itself as a kind of extension of the cathedral homage. As the symphony moves to its brilliant close, it makes allusion to its spirited opening.