22 Jan 2018

Ways of Listening

Some pieces of music need to 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 some music is able to whisk you along even if you have it on pretty thoughtlessly in the background but other music demands at least 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 for the first time, you must mindfully consent to enter the underworld that it depicts or it will struggle to make any impact.

In part, this is because 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. Then, through the orchestra’s dialogue with the beguiling song of the swan (played on the cor anglais), I felt Sibelius conjure a landscape for Tuonela every bit as real as that of Finlandthe swan holding itself stoically against bitter winter winds rolled out by distant timpani.

Also programmed was Brahms’s Violin Concerto, which I had largely spoiled for myself through over-listening until I came across Isabelle Faust’s recent recording, as she gives the listener a nice surprise at the end of the first movement by playing Busoni’s giddy cadenza instead of the usual Joachim. Though every performance with a Joachim has since been a slight disappointment, Gražinytė-Tyla approached the rest of the piece in a way that made it engaging once again. It was particularly interesting to see how she set a pace for it, as she made it clear with her Proms performance of the overture to The Magic Flute that she inclines towards blistering tempi but is able to handle them musically instead of using them to deliver cheap thrills.

Here, taking the concerto’s second movement fairly quickly, she undid none of its famous lyricism and yet allowed it to move with confidence, so that it sounded more like a pensive 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 much more of that Brahmsian warmth than we typically hear.