Dear La Folia 7.

Russell Lichter

[October 2002.]

Dear La Folia,

Greetings from Black Point!

You may find it difficult to credit, but between slaving for the mortgage, rereading Rumpole, attending the Robert Altman retrospective à côté de chez Lichter and, in general, playing the homeowner / handyman, I’ve not found the time and attention necessary to pursue my correspondence. But I don’t want you to feel neglected, so I am making an effort, now and then, to write.

Until a few months ago, I hardly knew the music of Sibelius. The Violin Concerto and The Swan of Tuonela were distant memories of a haunting beauty and poignancy. They hearken back to when I was a tyro audiophile, still wet behind the tweeters. And of course there’s that theme from the Karelia Suite that television producers occasionally rediscover. And then a humble email submission from my brother in Oregon changed all that. A set of Sibelius symphonic music, with Paavo Berglund conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic (Angel Classics 74405), was for sale, cheap, on the Internet. That purchase changed my life.

My love for this music led to curiosity about other performances. And my brother, who is responsible for many of my finest recordings, obliged by sending reviews of various versions of the symphonies, including the series conducted by Petri Sakari with the Icelandic Philharmonic. I first bought the recording of Symphonies 6 and 7, liked the performances very much, and sprang for the full set (Naxos White Box 8.505179), a bargain at less than $30 retail. Now, if I were forced to pack for that trip to a desert island and had to choose between the two sets, I would take the Berglund. But until that occasion arises, I find myself listening to the Sakari as frequently as to the Berglund. The Naxos recordings have some real virtues. The venue is small and not very reverberant, reminiscent of some of the Mercury Living Presence recordings. The soundstage is precise and clear. And Sakari is at pains to allow every voice to have its say; the structure of the music is revealed in its complex glory. And sometimes, not always, the performance is simply so beautiful that it drives other thoughts out of my mind.

To say that I have listened exclusively to the Sibelius Symphonies for the past four or five months would not be perfectly accurate, but close enough. The Debussy Préludes, Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, even the Roza Eskenazy recordings from the 1930s, do intervene. But it’s been Sibelius evenings. It’s been Sibelius weekends. It’s been Sibelius as I sit in my cubicle dreaming of overcast skies and dark, intense women in fur. I’ve even begun waking up with melodies from the symphonies going through my head. What is it about this music?

First, what Sibelius does with a symphony orchestra goes beyond orchestration. What Ravel did with Mussorgsky is orchestration. What he did with the Tombeau is orchestration. But Sibelius seems to have conceived the symphonies in purely orchestral form; he plays the orchestra as Chopin played the piano. This is music that could not exist in any other form. It is not melody supported by harmony and embellishment, but complex entities composed of many voices, like the symphonies of Mahler. Second, this is outdoor music, far from the pensive musings and stale air of narrow city rooms. The symphonies are singularly free of the self-involvement and formality characteristic of so much European music, even the greatest European music. There is a clarity and openness about the symphonies that I find constantly renewing and refreshing. This is music that frees the soul to breathe deeply and submit to the limitless natural beauty all around us, the light and the dark flowing even through our own veins.

And while I’m on the subject of peak experiences, I want to recommend a film by Bruno Monsaingeon called Richter, the Enigma. It is currently available only in VHS format. I doubt very much if the local Blockbuster (may their tribe decrease) has it on the shelf, but it is worth a concentrated effort to obtain a copy for viewing. Indeed, if you are, as I am, an admirer of Sviatoslav Richter, it is a tape worth purchasing. It is a long film, and by the time it finishes (with heart-wrenching poignancy), one is acquainted with both Richter the musician and, perhaps more importantly, Richter the human being. In the midst of all the fame and praise, the passion and the joy of performance, sits on old man who almost never allows interviews, conversing in Russian with a French violinist and reading passages from his journals. It is, to use that phrase from the more pompous reaches of academia, a profound human document.

Hope you’re doing well and not eating too many sweets.

[Russell alludes to the Editorial Aerie’s magical candy bowl. It never empties. Ed.]