For the Record

by Mark Isaacs

I’m happy to have been asked to write of the one CD I “could not live without”. At the moment that honour goes to a Decca recording of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 along with his great tone poem Tapiola that was recorded in London March 1982 by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The pairing of these two works in this 30-year old recording is perfect. The 7th symphony – Sibelius’s last –  is an extraordinary structure, a symphony in just one movement completed in 1924. Two years later Sibelius wrote Tapiola which could in some ways be thought of as his 8th symphony, also in one movement (his actual 8th symphony was never released to the world and in fact the composer – in perhaps the greatest known act of vandalism in Western art – threw the score into the fire).

In these late works to my mind Sibelius moves away from portraying the bustle of human affairs to paint a portrait of organic life, or matter itself. This is especially so in Tapiola named after Tapio, the forest spirit of Finnish legend. Here I find Sibelius’s symphonic writing in polar opposite to Mahler’s whose symphonies seem to be operas for orchestra, their labyrinthine plots painting the comings and goings, agonies and triumphs of their human characters (with the central character often being Mahler himself, or so it seems). In Tapiola, all the human beings have exited stage left. Life itself – as expressed through the earth or indeed the cosmos from which we all arose – seems to be the very sinews of this music. It is something of a miracle.

The performances too are magisterial. I’ve heard quite a few versions of Tapiola and this is my favourite. One can see why Christopher Nupen, the UK film-maker who made a series of extraordinary films for television about classical music, chose Vladimir Ashkenazy to conduct the musical excerpts for his two inspiring films about Sibelius. Ashkenazy’s profound sensitivity and control of this magnificent orchestra can be heard in every richly-wrought bar. Of course Sydney’s audiences and orchestra have been fully in such an embrace for some years now.

If I may be permitted a personal anecdote, I have been immeasurably sustained by the generous interest Maestro Ashkenazy has recently shown in my compositions. To meet with him and play for him as I have done is a musician’s dream. A couple of weeks ago I was driving and listening to the very CD I have been writing about here, part of the immersion in preparation for writing my own first symphony to be premiered by the QSO next year. I have a hands-free system in my car for my phone, which automatically fades out the music I am listening to before putting an incoming call through to the speakers. My enjoyment of these Sibelius works had already been interrupted by two calls. When the music started to fade for the third time in my exasperation I said aloud “Can’t I please just listen to Ashkenazy in peace?” upon which I heard the warmly-delivered words “Hello, this is Ashkenazy”.