22 Jan 2018

Ways of Listening

Some pieces of music must be listened to in particular ways to appreciate them fully. One is Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela, performed this week by the CBSO under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who I was glad to see in Newcastle after having seen her magnificent BBC Proms debut last year. One way to listen to Tuonela might be by a kind of sensory deprivation, if listening at home. It should be quiet and dark; you should be motionless and utterly attentive, lying down with eyes closed. Or, you could go to a concert, like I did, so that you are sat still and watchful.

This is because, while some music can whisk you along even if you have it on quite thoughtlessly in the background, other music demands just a little concentration. You can put on something like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and think nothing of its programme, caring only for its honking great melodies, but when you listen to Tuonela, at least for the first time, you must mindfully consent to enter the underworld that it depicts.

In part, this is because such ethereal, contemplative music always suffers when we listen distracted, but it’s also because Tuonela is of a class of music whose effects are profoundly shaped by its physicality. In its opening bars, for example, a chord moves like a mist through the orchestra, leftwards and upwards, through cellos to violas to violins, the gesture every bit felt as heard. If this played on shuffle at home, I might skip impatiently to the next track, but, hearing it live, I gave myself over to it immediately, and through the orchestra’s dialogue with the beguiling song of the swan (played on the cor anglais), Sibelius conjured a landscape for Tuonela as real as that of Finland – the swan holding itself stoically against bitter winter winds rolled out by distant timpani.

Also programmed was Brahms’s Violin Concerto, which I had spoiled for myself through over-listening until I came across Isabelle Faust’s recent recording, on which she surprises the listener at the end of the first movement by playing the giddy Busoni cadenza. Though standard performances of the Joachim cadenza are now a slight disappointment, it was interesting to hear how Gražinytė-Tyla set a pace for the piece, especially as she made it clear with her Proms performance of the overture to The Magic Flute that she can set a blistering tempo and still deliver new insights rather than mere gimmicks.

Taking the concerto’s second movement quite quickly, she undid none of its famous lyricism and yet allowed it to move with confidence, so that it sounded more like a chorale than a lament. Hearing it this way, its opening struck me as similar to the chorale that Brahms used for his earlier Op. 56 variations. Characteristically for Brahms (and unlike Sibelius), those variations are infused more with consolation than desolation, and Gražinytė-Tyla’s reading of the concerto brought out more of that Brahmsian warmth than we typically hear.