Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 - Ashkenazy
Classical - Orchestral
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 43, Tapiola, Swan of Tuonela
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)
Review by John Miller - June 12, 2008
After a rather disappointing first instalment of Askenazy's second recorded Sibelius cycle (Sibelius: Symphonies 1 & 3 - Ashkenazy), everything comes together in this issue. My immediate impression was that the recording team had found the right locations for their microphones, and left things alone after that. Gone is the spotlighting of sections or instruments, particularly the brass. Now we are given a front seat in the first balcony of the Stockholms Konserthus and are fully and convincingly bathed in its ample ambience. The orchestra is superbly focussed and has a deep front to back perspective, each section clearly located and with a realistic spread, no point-source spotlighting here.
Both conductor and orchestra are also now one. The Stockholmers are now playing on their mettle, and Ashkenazy, making his own internal balances, urges them to a set of very fine performances indeed.
Sibelius' Second Symphony was one of Sir John Barbirolli's warhorses, and I have heard it many times live under his baton. His incandescent recording with the RPO is generally regarded to be one of the finest available; one can easily understand why the Finnish audiences took the Second Symphony to their hearts as a symbol of freedom at a time when they were heavily oppressed by their Russian masters. Ashkenazy and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra have produced a reading which is easily in that class, and in terms of recordings, is for me one of the best currently available.
Surveying the current SACD competition, Neeme Järvi and the Gothenbergers (Sibelius: 7 Symphonies - Järvi) are laid back in the first three movements, and surprisingly effort-full and slow in the crucial Finale. Paavo Järvi (Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 / Tubin: Symphony No. 5 - Järvi) tends to pull things around as did his mentor Bernstein; his Finale is ponderous with square rhythms and some very odd balances - the metronomic oboes far too prominent, and for me the Telarc recording is airless and claustrophobic, with whole orchestral sections reduced almost to point sources coming from within the left and right speakers. Mackerras (Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 - Mackerras), however, seems to me to be very under-rated. His tempi are the closest to those of Kajanus in 1930 and he produces a brisk but atmospheric first movement, a dramatic second and a sizzling scherzo, topped by a resounding finale - certainly a good bargain recommendation. Davis on LSO Live (Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 - Davis) is very good but let down by the close and dry recording, where Sibelius demands light and air.
Ashkenazy doesn't seem to put a foot wrong. The first movement is concocted as an organic whole, full of incident and drama; the tempi seem natural and the orchestra on their mettle. His slow movement becomes a miniature tone-poem; it is hard to believe that such blazing angst and cold-bloodedness could be drawn from its unassumingly pastoral first bars. He gives us a blistering scherzo, with the DSD giving the racing string textures a thrilling realism, and seamlessly draws us into the Finale, where its tantalising series of crescendos and false climaxes are the work's greatest challenge. In the final peroration, which would have had the audience on their feet after one of the live takes, the pent up suspension is released by a superbly balanced view of the glorious panoply. The brass are glowingly splendid, but the chiming oboes, chugging strings and bass countermelody are all contributing proportionally in the picture. I felt that this was as near as one could get to a real concert experience, thanks to the wonderful 5.0 sound.
Tapiola was Sibelius' last major orchestral composition, and surely one of the great masterpieces of C20th music. Tapio is the God of the Forest in the Finnish Kalevala, and Sibelius appended a descriptive quatrain from these poems at the head of the score. This work is about the nature and essence of the great and ancient Boreal Forests themselves; its extraordinary modern orchestration and harmonic structure puts the listener alone within the presence of the trees and their heritage. Karajan, with the BPO, made several seminal recordings of this work, but none of them had the amazing sound quality found on this disc. Ashkenazy and his orchestra give a totally dedicated rendition, such as only Nordic musicians could; hypnotic, full of infinite sadness, the breathing earth, skirls of wind, weaving wood-sprites, terrifying tempests. At the end, a deeply moving resolution to the comforting arrival of the major chord. Totally gripping and unmissable, a tour-de-force.
The final piece is a well-programmed relief from the frowning concentration and intensity of Tapiola. Ashkenazy's mythological Swan of Tuonela floats serenely on the black lake waters, and never before has the minute details of the shimmering and tranquil background been so clearly and magically reproduced.
I should also mention the good notes by Anthony Burton inserted in the European release, and the very attractive design of the cycle's covers - a welcome change from the usual photographs of misty conifer stands.
A recording to cherish.
Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net