Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Karelia Suite; Finlandia. Sir Charles Mackerras, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks Audiophile Collection. Sheridan Square/Allegro RPM 28920.

Even though fans of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) will already have multiple copies of the music on this disc, Sir Charles Mackerras's unadorned performances may be refreshing enough to warrant another version of them. Then again, because the three pieces represented--the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, the Karelia Suite, and the tone poem Finlandia--are so popular, the disc might also make a good starter set for listeners just setting out on a Sibelius collection. In any case, the interpretations and the sound are worthy of consideration.

The main work on the album is the Second Symphony, which Sibelius premiered in 1902. In it, the composer strove both to describe the sounds of nature and to evoke a patriotic message of independence, rather a lot for one composer to manage in one composition. But manage he does, and audiences have loved the music for over a century.

Sibelius opens the symphony with a light Allegretto, pastoral in mood, with Mackerras bringing out its bucolic qualities without over sentimentalizing it at all. In fact, he plays up the rhythmic beat and holds back a little in the slower sections, creating a tension-filled few minutes. You won't find any glamorizing or glorifying here, only a straightforward account of the score.

The Andante that follows continues this straightforward approach, beginning with plucked basses and cellos, the bassoon playing an enigmatic tune over them and Mackerras using the occasion to paint a typically Sibelius landscape of barren northern climes. Then, as he proceeds, the conductor whips up a good little flurry, perhaps a Lapland storm of some sort, with echoes of Finlandia throughout.

The Scherzo, marked "Vivacissimo," is certainly that--lively and vivacious--although Mackerras never gets carried away into any kind of frenzy. That sensible, pragmatic wont of his prevents him from ever getting fully wound up. However, after the lovely middle section that momentarily interrupts the excitement, Mackerras does return with a renewed fervor, and the ending sets up the finale nicely.

The last movement may be the most-famous and most-popular segment of any of Sibelius's seven symphonies. It's weighty and memorable, and here the conductor captures not only the grandeur of the music but its lyrical beauty as well. He ensures the symphony ends in a blaze of glory for independence and self-rule.

In the end, Mackerras's account of the symphony may not be the absolute best on record, not with more-passionate or more-characterful versions available from Barbirolli (EMI and Chesky), Karajan (EMI), Davis (Philips and RCA), Ashkenazy (Decca), Szell (Sony), Bernstein (Sony), Ormandy (RCA), Vanska (BIS), and others. Nevertheless, Mackerras's clearheaded vision, well-judged tempos, and poetic rhythms are sure to please even critics of Sibelius's music.

The Allegro Corporation fill out the disc with two other favorite Sibelius pieces: the Karelia Suite and Finlandia, both works as well liked as the symphony. I especially enjoyed the bounce in "Ala Marcia." Mackerras was always a somewhat reserved conductor, as I've said, a bit like Bernard Haitink, who never added much of his own personal emotion to an interpretation, preferring to let the music speak for itself. So you will find more-exciting performances from other conductors. Mackerras is never foursquare, you understand, just balanced, which in the music of Sibelius may be just the right tack.

For reasons unknown, the folks at Allegro never seem to indicate on their RPO packaging the time or place of the recording, nor do they usually indicate a live recording. The booklet note does state, though, that Sheridan Square published the present recording in 2007 and that Allegro Corporation released it in 2011. The actual recording date? I don't know. And is it live, as many other Royal Philharmonic Masterworks recordings are? I don't think so. There is not a hint of audience noise or applause. Rather, it sounds like a good studio production, which I'm guessing it is.

Addendum:  A kind reader informed me after I posted this review that Mackerras made the recording for Tring in 1994.  So there you are.

The orchestral sound displays weight and body, yet it retains a fine midrange clarity, with very little veiling. The dynamic range is wide, although impact is only modest, as are the bass and treble extension and stage depth. The drum rolls in Finlandia are thrilling, even if the sound in the rest of the music is more moderate. Let's just say the sonic presentation is natural and lifelike without being in any way spectacular or overwhelming. It's comfortable, well-balanced sound, a lot like Mackerras's interpretations.


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