Thursday, February 05, 2009

Land of Sibelius

Having been spoiled by the mild weather of the Pacific Northwest, I have forgotten how cold a clear winter night can be. I was grateful indeed to walk into my warm hotel room after a brisk walk. Yet in my much younger years had no trouble riding a bike at 20 or 30 below. Now I have much more sympathy and understanding for the seniors who in my youth seemed overdressed in weather that seemed just great to me.

It was a blast teaching in my native tongue, something I don't get to do too often. Old friends seem amazed how well preserved my skill is in my own language. Of course I read news and other articles in Finnish daily and have spent considerable amounts of time back at home over the decades. There is something truly neat about a Finn returning to his home country, ten time zones away, to teach the Sibelius violin concerto to a most talented young lady of seventeen, speaking in Finnish although her roots are in Hungary and Romania. I used to dislike the work as it was almost force-fed to any Finnish violinist and listener of classical music, but these days I have new respect and admiration for the composition. It took a few decades for the concerto to become popular and one certain Jascha Heifetz in particular. He always took a liking to rarely performed works. Some remained in his very own territory, or he "spoiled" the compositions with his interpretation and no one else dared to challenge him with a different, or probably inferior, viewpoint. The Sibelius concerto, however, was soon adopted by others, namely the French Ginette Neveu, and encouraged by her, others such as the young Soviet violinist David Oistrakh. Interestingly, Sibelius did not care for the speedy but immaculate performance of Heifetz and did not hesitate to make his opinion known. When asked whose interpretation was his favorite, Sibelius said "Oistrakh's". The reason? He was the only one playing the last movement almost slowly enough.

Another interesting fact about the work, other than the composer intending to write a symphony but being encouraged by his publisher to write a concerto instead, is the close attention Sibelius paid to the piano accompaniment. His friend Karl Ekman wrote a more pianistic and thus playable version than what we usually hear. It seems like violinists today prefer a piano version of the actual score; personally I like Ekman's workmanship better. Of course, the concerto we hear today wasn't Sibelius' original. The work was to be performed in Stockholm and all the music was lost during the voyage by sea. Sibelius only had his sketches left and had to recreate the work. The parts turned up decades later and the two versions can be heard together on a recording by Leonidas Kavakos and the Lahti orchestra.

I'm finishing this at Heathrow. London has been paralyzed by record snow (nothing at all by Finnish standards) which finally is melting but looking through the club room window in the new Terminal 5, one can see thick fog developing in turn. I better zip this off before hearing news about more delays. Sibelius might have turned this weather into another masterpiece.