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Pauline Lerner

Sibelius Strikes Again

February 1, 2008 at 8:36 AM

Now that I have my own set of DVDs of the fabulous Young People’s Concerts (see my blogs dated Sept. 16, 2007 and Nov. 30, 2007) ) I’m enjoying watching and listening to many of the one hour shows. The other day I watched the one on Sibelius, and I reacted as if I had been hit by lightning. How could I have listened to classical music, including works by Sibelius, so many times over the years, and how could I have played some of Sibelius’s music in orchestras, and never realized that Sibelius wrote beautiful music? Of course, I was especially interested in his violin concerto. I looked through my CD collection and found no (gasp!) CDs of it, although I have a great DVD of Oistrakh playing it. In my opinion, nobody plays it better than Oistrakh. Still, I wanted a CD of someone playing this piece, so I looked for sound samples on the Internet.

My choice was clear and easy. There was one violinist who played it differently from all the others: Joshua Bell. The difference started with the very first note, a long, slow crescendo. Most of the other violinists played it overly sweet and syrupy for my taste. They used big, broad vibratos. I listened to Bell, and at first, I thought he wasn’t using vibrato at all Actually he was, but it was a very tight, small vibrato. That first note set the mood for the whole piece, with a few exceptions, of course. I would call his playing “taut.” He was reaching for a goal, a difficult one, that required close attention and intense dedication. I had a mental vision of a narrow metal cable stretched tight, the kind you might hang onto if you were striving to summit Mt. Everest. The tightness gave way a few times, primarily in the second movement, to patches of beautiful melody. The tension did not make the music difficult to listen to; it held me hanging on until the very end.

I read opinions by some critics who said that Sibelius’s music was cold and austere, because he came from Finland, a cold place. Ha! I would never describe Sibelius’s music that way. Perhaps they meant what I mean by the word “taut.” Sibelius didn’t use any more notes than he had to, but he conveyed emotions in a very powerful way. Joshua Bell did, too, in this recording.

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