Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sibelius in New Zealand

New Zealand's best-known composer is Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001). Another musical gem I'd like to share with you is his Second Symphony, composed in 1951. 

Lilburn's teacher was Vaughan Williams and this influence turns up from time to time, as does that of Copland. Far stronger than either though is the wholly benign influence of Sibelius. If, like me, you love the music of all three of these great composers, especially the later, you are in for a treat! 

The first movement, called Prelude, is a beauty. Its opening theme for strings, with repeated notes that seem to echo the opening of Sibelius's own Second Symphony, is marked by the rocking interval of a second. It is met by an oboe theme that could have been sung by Pohjola's Daughter - a pastoral tune answered by lovely string phrases. Anticipatory tremolos and rising strings take us soaring to a wonderfully stirring reprise of the main theme. The brass break in forcefully and a march begins, containing development of the main ideas, then a flute floats in and induces a slightly anxious mood. Anxiety needs release and this fine paragraph eventually gets it with renewed grand vistas courtesy of the returning main theme. Militant jubilation gives way once more to the pastoral peacefulness of the opening. 

The Scherzo is a delight. If the first movement was heroic and Sibelius-like, then this is cheerfully Copland-like in its outer sections and Vaughan Williams-like in its trio. The main section has two fine, catchy tunes. Syncopation abounds in the no less catchy trio, though this latter is a nostalgic creature and moves more slowly. Great tunes are here by the bucket-load. 

The slow movement, pointedly entitled Introduction, prepares us for the uplifting finale by taking us on an introspective yet heroic journey through a bare polar landscape (or so it sounds to me), somewhat in the manner of Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica

That finale brings glad rescue and restores Sibelius's primacy of influence. A refreshing sea-breeze on strings seems to blow in on strings, warmed by noble horns. This delightful, melodically bright beginning reaches an exciting climax, winds down again beautifully and pauses for solo woodwinds to sing and dance Lilburn's second subject. Beauties continue to abound in a symphonic finale that triumphantly succeeds while allowing space for lovely melody to breathe and the human spirit to dance.

There's so much hidden treasure out there.

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