Sibelius: Symphonies 6 & 7 - Ashkenazy
Classical - Orchestral
Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor Op. 104, Symphony No. 7 in C major Op. 105, Karelia Suite Op. 11, Valse Triste Op. 44 No. 1
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)
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Review by John Miller - June 21, 2008
For this last disc in Ashkenazy's second recorded Sibelius symphony cycle, Octavia's rather erratic engineers have thankfully reverted to the fine balance found on the Symphony no. 2 disc. Once again the RSPO have the ample acoustics of the Stockholm Konserthus within which their sound can blossom, and a beautifully-detailed soundstage with good front to back perspective. The listener is somewhat closer, however, than on the Second symphony disc, and if played loud, the high strings can sound over-bright, for example in the closing pages of the Seventh. The harp was not really prominent enough in the 6th symphony, where it is needed to add sparkle and rhythmic impulse - but many other recordings suffer from this too.
Askenazy and the Philharmonia produced a very good 6th Symphony in their previous cycle for Decca, and not a great deal has changed, except that in the Stockholm performance the tempi are all notably faster, giving the lie to the adage that conductors slow music down as they age. This lovely symphony, often neglected in concert programmes, is regarded as a masterpiece by many musicologists. In following the exultant 5th, it is drained of heroism, and it also reserves epic glory for the 7th Symphony. Yet it has fragile beauties of its own. Sibelius revered Palestrina, and the first movement, without key signature, is not really in D minor but in the Dorian mode (from D to D1 on the white notes of the piano). This movement begins on the middle and upper strings in an imitation of Renaissance polyphonic vocal writing, and more polyphony comes from the woodwinds in their many imitative passages.
There are many ways to interpret this sometimes enigmatic symphony, from Järvi (DGG,SACD), who is very relaxed and contented in the first two movments, through Karajan (DGG. RBCD) - cool, in many shades of grey - to the impetuous and passionate Oramo (Erato, RBCD). Ashkenazy takes the road of Sibelius' early interpreters such as Schnéevoigt, Beecham and Collins, keeping good forward momentum and tension throughout the work. The composer himself uncharacteristically gave us a few clues about the work. In 1943 he remarked that it always reminded him of the scent of the first snow, and later added that "Rage and passion... are utterly essential in it, but it is supported by undercurrents deep under the surface of the music".
The translucent strings of the RSPO sound etherially nostalgic and regretful in the first bars of the first movment, joined by plangent oboes, all superbly and atmospherically portrayed in the DSD sound. Quite quickly, however, Ashkenazy dispels this mood, moving crisply to an energetic ride across the landscape, surging with exhilaration and pure joy, but even this mood soon darkens. All these transitions are handled sensitivly and with lovely phrasing from the orchestra, who seem to take special pleasure in this symphony. There are several grandiose false climaxes in the last few pages, a pause, and the violins end the movement briefly and tranquilly mezzo-forte above a sustained high harmonic D from the cellos and basses. It may sound abrupt, but Sibelius has said everything he wants to.
Ashkenazy gently propels the second movement with its limping ostinato slow-waltz rhythm on the woodwinds, sweeping the ostinato aside to enter the hushed Nordic forest-scape, full of bird calls and scurrying strings. In his hands, this movement sounds like one of the early theatrical pieces, accompanying some tableau of Finnish legend. In the finale, the mercurial Ashkenazy takes us on a wild ride, eventful and detailed, catching the spirit of folk tunes and then precipitating us into a great storm. At the end, rest is found with some earnest village hymn tunes, subsiding into a peaceful minor chord.
Turning now to the Seventh Symphony, Ashkenazy concocts a wonderfully organic reading, which seems to flow effortlessly and inevitably from moment to moment, climax to climax. This is the most concentrated symphonic form that Sibelius devised, much less cluttered with ideas and motives than any of the others, refined and purified to a single crystalline movement. Mravinsky (RBCD, 1965 live performance) gave an incendiary Romantic reading with much greater contrast and tempo variation than Ashkenazy (if you can survive the overblown and wobbly Russian trombones). For some, the flexible but controlled and majestic approach of the Stockholm performance might seem to be more characteristically Sibelian. It is certainly life-enhancing, with great clarity and purity of vision, from the cogent and determined first steps of the lower strings up the scale of C major (which ends in a warning E flat major chord), to the final radiant moments upon returning to that home key centre. But Mravinsky's Seventh is simply an earth-shattering performance.
The make-weights are affectionately and expertly played. Karelia opens with a breath-takingly realistic soft shimmer of strings, and atmospheric distant muted brass calls. Its Alla marcia is suitably jaunty and bright, while the Valse Triste from Kuolema becomes a miniature melodrama.
Taking the cycle as a whole, I have greatly enjoyed listening to Askenazy's second recorded take on the Sibelius symphonies. It will come as no surprise that I find some of the performances better than others in the series. Given the vast range of interpretive choices which this rich music provides when interacting with the temperament and life experience of conductors (as well as their orchestras), there can be no ideal cycle, or perhaps even a truly consistent one. There is, however, a wonderful choice of recordings available on the market, each one revealing something about Sibelius - and ourselves. My main regret is about the (not unexpected) inconsistent engineering from disc to disc and even within discs; if the highest standard had been maintained this cycle might have been preferable overall to Jarvi on DGG. Granted there are difficulties when using takes from both live and 'studio' performances, but other companies have managed this very well.
Finally, a word of praise for the Stockholm audiences, from whom I could not hear a sound. I have, however, become accustomed to a deeply-involved Vladimir Ashkenazy's vocalisations!
Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net
Review by John Broggio - April 11, 2009
I obtained this due to the advocacy of other reviewers - here and elsewhere - and was a little disappointed. For all the many virtues extolled by Geohominid, I found that Ashkenazy was too Romantic in approach and some of the power found from cool, modernist restraint exemplified by Karajan in the 6th (amongst others) and Davis in the 7th was missing. There were too many occasions for repeated listening in my mind where the orchestra sounded taxed beyond their limitations - this, rather than audience participation, is what reveals the "live" provenance of this disc. At times, the strings in 7th symphony sounded woefully thin - not undernourished - as if Ashkenazy had requested that far fewer than the whole section play the material (against the indications of the score) and this effect is far from convincing. Clearly though this is a matter of personal opinion as Geohominid experienced the disc far more favourably - one can only advise readers to try before purchasing as I endorse much of what Geohominid has to say but that the sum of Ashkenazy's parts is not to my taste.
The Karelia Suite and Valse Triste by comparison find such a Romantic approach far more rewarding and these make-weights are very appealing indeed, if without the virile nature that Ashkenazy found in his earlier Philharmonia reading.
The sound is very beautiful indeed, fulling capturing (in MCH) the decay of the sound as it traverses the depth of the acoustic - very telling indeed but without blurring any detail although it is a little too forwardly balanced to be ideal but this is minor carping for one can (performances excepted) genuinely not tell that the disc emanates from live performances.
So a little warning that some might want to try before they buy if possible; Sibelius, like Mahler, provokes a wide range of (strong) reactions and no one approach can be safely recommended to all. For all my misgivings, I look forward to earlier volumes in the cycle where I feel Ashkenazy's approach is better suited to the more overtly Romantic scores.
Copyright © 2009 John Broggio and HRAudio.net