Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 7

Sibelius, Jean

album cover

Music for the Adventure Film Inside Your Head

Portions of the first movement of Symphony No. 5—particularly the nervous-making strings that ratchet up the tension around three minutes in—may remind listeners of those action films where a damsel in distress is hanging from the precipice of a tall building, awaiting rescue. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) gives the string players the task of manufacturing portent; for long stretches the music suggests mounting danger, until suddenly the lifeline snaps and we're on a collision course with calamity. The third movement contains more hurtling-toward-the-inevitable exposition, as well as a sweeping melody fitting for the final reel of an epic film.

A painstaking composer known for his nationalistic "Finlandia" and the pomp-filled march cadences of Symphony No. 2, Sibelius never wrote the same thing twice; each of his major works has its own system and logic, with highly individual devices (unresolved cloudy tones in the strings, intricate birdlike pecks from the winds) serving as unifying elements. No. 5 premiered in 1915, and then Sibelius spent four years revising it. He finished the dense, single-movement No. 7 in 1924.

The structure of No. 7 is plenty radical, but that's not why the piece is Sibelius's greatest. Its themes connect facets of symphony and tone poem, with hyper-descriptive images in the winds supported by broad punctuating chords from the brass and low strings. At times, his sustained tones and ostinatos echo those of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Berlioz's acid-tripping Symphonie fantastique. But throughout this piece, Sibelius sounds like he's chasing a single thought, following it along a rocky trajectory. He rarely circles back to restate anything "familiar," or to provide a traditional symphonic toehold (though the fifth segment feels a bit like a scherzo). And after spending most of the twenty-two-minute work in pursuit, Sibelius ends it not with any flag-waving, but a single marathon chord that resolves abruptly. Some consider it the most distinctive finale in the entire symphonic repertoire.

This is the first of three recordings of Sibelius's works helmed by British conductor Sir Colin Davis. The performances are lively, and extremely attentive. Though he obviously knows how the story ends, Davis engineers each plot twist to maximize the surprise. He spreads that on-edge energy through the ensemble and then to everyone within earshot.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1975, Philips (Reissued 2001)
Key Tracks: Symphony No. 5: first movement. Symphony No. 7: first and third movements.
Catalog Choice: Lemminkäinen Suite, Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Petri Sakari, cond.)
Next Stop: Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
After That: Aram Khachaturian: Spartacus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Yuri Temirkanov, cond.)
Book Pages: 699–700

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