We talk to the Finnish conductor about recording all seven Sibelius symphonies
This summer, John Storgårds will be conducting the BBC Philharmonic in Sibelius’s Second Symphony at the BBC Proms. It's the latest instalment of a long and intense journey that he and the orchestra have been making with the music of his fellow Finn – along the way, they have performed a complete Sibelius Symphony cycle at Bridgewater Hall and also headed into the studio to record all seven works for Chandos records. The recording, which also includes fragments of what might have been from Sibelius's aborted Eighth Symphony, is released this month. Storgårds tells Jeremy Pound all about it…
Complete Sibelius Symphony recordings aren’t knocked together in a day. How long did it take you to record this set?
This has been a long-term project. The recordings were done in the studio over a period of two years, and were done along with a lot of concerts. We did some of the Symphonies in the Proms, we did some of them in concerts round the Manchester area and then, finally, we did a cycle of them all at Bridgewater Hall – but by the time we did that cycle, we had already recorded most of them.
When you put all seven Sibelius Symphonies together, do they take the listener on some sort of journey in the way that Mahler’s nine symphonies do? Or are they to be treated as completely separate entities?
That’s a good question. With Mahler, he always carried on in one symphony from where he’d left off in the last – it makes it all one long-term trip in a way. But with Sibelius every symphony is such an individual piece of art. Of course, you can definitely look at it as a long process, but it’s much more about separate pieces of art within that process than I would say is the case with Mahler.
Stylistically, how much can the listener hear Sibelius develop between the First Symphony (1899) and the Seventh (1924)?
With the First Symphony, and also the Second, you can look at it as something that relates a lot to the traditions and composers that had influenced him from before. But from there onwards he really went on discovering something very individual and, in a way, modern – he was creating something totally new from symphony to symphony and definitely changed a lot. And then, of course, when you think about the other pieces he did when he was young – Kullervo and Lemminkäinen – he had a lot of Wagnerian ideas. He went totally away from that direction to another, much more concentrated direction. This logically ends up with the Seventh Symphony, which is in one movement lasting just over 20 minutes, and is really a very clear, structured symphonic movement in itself.
The Symphonies vary hugely in character. To what extent can the listener trace what was happening in Sibelius’s personal life when he wrote each of them?
Whichever composer we are talking about, it’s always relevant and interesting to know a little bit about what kind of situations he was in when he did this and that. But when Sibelius himself was asked about what might have affected his way of writing, he didn’t care so much about trying to explain things like that – he was more into really saying that he is building his music and that’s the thing. So, while there is always a background that must have had an influence in its own way, I also think that as a professional musician Sibelius really wanted, from symphony to symphony, to start something very new every time. We know he also took a lot of time, and that it was always a long and complicated process for him to write a new symphony.
Fascinatingly, your set also includes the first recordings of the three late fragments of music that were found among his possessions. How convinced are you that they were intended for an Eighth Symphony?
Well, we cannot be sure. However, I think the longest one of these three fragments may well be related to the Eighth as there are some notes around it where he has written ‘Eighth Symphony’ – probably at least some of the music is related to the Eighth Symphony. The longest of these fragments is also the most exciting and interesting as it is the start of something. Of course, one cannot know if it’s the start of the symphony or the start of a movement or the start of a specific section within a big piece or whatever, but it’s the start of something and I could imagine that this must have been related to some very big symphonic thoughts. There’s also no evidence that Sibelius had any other big orchestral plans during those late years other than an Eighth Symphony, so in that sense it would be very logical that whatever orchestral fragments have been found should be linked to his plans for that symphony.
It’s mere speculation, but do you think that the finality and compactness of his Seventh Symphony made it that much more difficult for Sibelius to embark on an Eighth?
It must have been difficult in many ways, because I’m sure he must have realised that he had gone so far in the development in the direction that ended with the Seventh. And then we also have Tapiola, which is just a bit shorter than the Seventh Symphony and also very modern. So he must have realized that, even if he still had the energy, the health and the will to go on from here, it would again have to be a big step forward.
And eventually, it simply proved too big a step…
He was getting older and had difficulties controlling his handwriting so it must have been really, really hard for him at times. I’m sure he must have had a lot of ideas and we know that he was working on it but, for many reasons including the fact that he was always very self-critical about his work, it must have become more and more difficult to go on. Eventually he made the decision that it’s over and destroyed everything that was there. However, we do know that he was aiming to do it, because he told [conductor] Serge Koussevitzky in Boston that he was working on it. It seemed like the process got quite far at some point, but then it ended.
When you listen to the whole set of your recordings, do you have a favourite moment?
I’m really happy with all of it, so it’s very hard to point out one specific symphony. I would say that I think in all of these performances there are some details that I’m especially happy about – details which I feel are very important in these pieces but are not always heard in the way I think they should be. Overall, it’s all about balance and the naturalness in the flow of the structure, but also about being able to hear everything that is there – the challenge with Sibelius is to let the music live in big breaths but also to bring out all the details.
John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic’s Complete Sibelius recordings (Chandos CHAN 10809(3)) are reviewed in our June issue, on sale 13 May