Sibelius’ symphonies range from really over-the-top late 19th century folk-inspired stuff to the kind of subtle innovation this unsophisticated listener might associate with Mahler. I am still a complete neophyte (tyro?) when it comes to discerning great symphonic writing from okay symphonic writing, so it’s the 1892 Kullervo that I notice the most, and it doesn’t seem like it has dated so well.
So his other symphonies come as great relief. I can’t say I know why they are or aren’t truly great, but I do know that I’d rather listen to this than, say, 19th century pre-impressionist French symphonies. I’d say this is the second best set of early 20th century symphonies I have heard, but that doesn’t really mean a whole lot.
Individual reviews written later:
This weird hybrid of different orchestral styles through me for a loop the first time I listened to it, in part because the collection I have it on sequences it after the symphonies.
But this is an impressive, forward-thinking out-of-the-box fusion of forms, that was also pretty nationalistic – a pretty common thing by then, I believe. The music stays with you. It may be unsubtle, but most Romantic music is.
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 [Revised version] (1901)
Sibelius’ first symphony features an instantly memorable crescendo less than half way through the opening movement and there are more that follow it up. There are also a series of solos, almost like teeny tiny concerti or something.
This symphony is regularly regarded as immature or a little too devoted to Tchaikovsky (or Bruckner, or whomever). But I really like its high Romantic grandeur and epicness.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1902)
Sibelius’ second symphony is like quantum leap forward from his first. I really like the first one, but there’s a lot more going on here in this second one. It makes his first symphony sound almost simple by comparison. I think it has to be looked on as one of the great symphonies of its era, worthy of Mahler (if sounding nothing like Mahler).
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1903)
I read that this symphony marks a huge growth in Sibelius’ development as a composer. I find that a little hard to hear for some reason. I like the symphony, but not as much as the earlier ones or the later ones. Perhaps because it’s transitional.
That second movement is so pretty though, that I forget the impression that it doesn’t seem quite as bold.
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1911)
I struggle a little bit with the fourth symphony like I struggle with the third. However this one is less immediate than the third so I struggle more. I then read that this was apparently Sibelius’ response to the musical revolution going on around him and I get angry.
But all of that aside, it’s another pretty great piece full of the subtlety that defines his later works and with a great sense of eeriness that too many have seen as prescient of WWI.
It may be my least favourite of the seven symphonies, but that’s only because the others are so good.
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 [Revised version] (1919
The third version of Sibelius’ fifth symphony is supposedly the most conservative, rejecting the supposed concessions he made to modernism in the fourth.
I don’t hear that perhaps because what I hear is Sibelius’ most immediate and accessible symphony. Normally that’s a bad thing for me, but this finds a balance between melodic lyricism and Sibelius’ usual inventive and compelling writing. The melody in the third movement could be a popular song. Seriously it’s that pretty.
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 24 (1923)
While everyone zigged Sibelius zagged, looking for inspiration in long forgotten areas.
Most times conservatism drives me crazy. But the thing about Sibelius is that he was inspired by past without worshiping it. This symphony doesn’t sound like it was inspired by Medieval and Renaissance music, though it was. It’s not clear revivalism, rather it’s the incorporation of under-appreciate past musical elements into something that sounds pretty modern – maybe not quite as modern as the most radical of the contemporary music of the era, but still modern.
Few people manage this so well.
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924)
Sibelius struggled with calling this a symphony because it’s not – it ignores traditional symphonic form, and, by doing so, basically created the sub-genre of the one movement symphony.
Though less radical than his contemporaries, Sibelius has done what Debussy did to Opera a few decades earlier here: he has almost created an anti-symphony; not only is it one movement but that movement doesn’t follow the usual pattern and this culminates in an ending unlike any ending of a symphony after – an anti-climax that one would associate with an earlier movement.