22 Jan 2018

Ways of Listening

There are some pieces of music that must be listened to in certain ways to appreciate them fully. Well, that’s true of all music, but some pieces seem less robust to circumstance than others. One is Sibelius's The Swan of Tuonela, which I this week saw performed by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO (I was glad to see her here 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, eyes closed. Or, you could go to a concert.

Obviously, I speak for myself in this, but my point is that some music has the capital-b Brass to whisk you along even if you have it on thoughtlessly in the background, while other music demands more deliberate focus. I can put on Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and think nothing of its programme, caring only for its honking great melodies, but to listen to Tuonela, at least for the first time you must mindfully consent to enter the otherworld that it depicts.

In part, this is because ethereal, mournful, contemplative music inevitably suffers when listening distracted, but in part it is because Tuonela is of that class of music whose effects are profoundly influenced 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; the chord itself a miniature overture to the description of the swan that follows. If I heard this on a recording without absolute concentration, I would skip thoughtlessly to the next track; hearing it live, I gave myself over to it immediately.

When I think at one and the same time of birds and the oboe (or the cor anglais, which is the swan of Tuonela), I cannot help but think of ducks, which don't have quite the same grace, thanks to Peter and the Wolf. But this combination, the tragic and the turgid, worked unexpectedly well for conjuring a mythological creature that floats weightlessly through the afterlife. The effect was also unharmed by my mistaken belief during the concert, before reading about the piece more closely, that it was about some bleak Scandinavian landscape a scene from ‘Frozen Planet’, perhaps; a swan holding itself stoically against bitter winter winds rolled out by distant timpani.

Also on the programme was Brahms’s Violin Concerto. It’s a piece I have now loved too much to be moved by, and I have been additionally spoilt by Isabelle Faust’s recording, on which she plays the giddy Busoni cadenza all the endless Joachims are now disappointments. Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear the pace that Mirga set for the second movement. It seems already that a good tempo for Mirga is a good tempo for me, which is to say, it is probably too fast for some. Her BBC Proms performance of the overture to Die Zauberflöte was particularly blistering other orchestras would have blustered at the same speed - and though she didn't undo the sweet lyricism of the violin concerto, she let it move with confidence, making it sound more like a chorale than a searching lament.

Hearing it this way, and noting the wind instrumentation, it struck me as similar in temperament to the Saint Anthony Chorale that Brahms took as the theme for his earlier Op. 56 variations a piece that I now try to listen to as little as possible so that I can still be in love with it when I need to be. Altogether, the orchestra played the concerto extremely well; beyond that, there was nothing quite so memorable.