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Sibelius sys35 645
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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No 3 in C major, Op 52 (1906-07)
Symphony No 5 in E-flat major, Op 82 (1914-15; rev. 1918-19)
Pohjola's Daughter, Op 49 (1903-06)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Santtu-Matias Rouvali
rec. 2018-22, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden
ALPHA CLASSICS 645 [76]

This is the third volume in Santtu-Matias Rouvali's Sibelius symphony cycle. The first volume contained Symphony No 1 and En Saga while the next offered No 2 and King Christian II. The performances received generally positive reviews here: try Brian Wilson's very thorough assessment of No 1 (review) and Ralph Moore's insightful notice of No 2 (review). This new issue, while not without a few faults, is also quite fine.

Symphony No 3 is the stronger performance here: apart from some finicky phrasing early on in the chorale theme that appears in the latter half of the Finale (track 3, 4:40 – 5:21), the interpretation and playing are utterly superb. The Allegro moderato first movement main theme brims with vitality and exudes the sunny atmosphere we associate with its peasant dance character, while the alternate theme in B minor evinces the proper sense of longing and anxiety. The return of the main theme that marks the recapitulation brings on a joyous climax. Rouvalis's tempos throughout this movement fit the music perfectly. The same is true of the second movement: marked Andantino con moto, Rouvali never lets the music drag and everything unfolds beautifully in this Finnish folksong-like music. Its nocturnal dreaminess has rarely ever sounded this mesmerizing.

The final movement (Moderato; Allegro ma non tanto), sort of a conflation of a Scherzo and Finale, opens with motivic morsels from earlier themes and gradually develops energy which midway through dissipates in yielding to the aforementioned chorale theme. All this unfolds convincingly but the second time the theme is played Rouvali injects some curious hesitations, though afterwards it comes on with a majesty and vitality to crown this performance as one of the finest on record.

Rouvali's Fifth is a somewhat restrained account of what is certainly an epic work. Brass climaxes curiously lack heft and sound comparatively tepid alongside most other performances on record that I know. Try the central climax in the first movement (7:54 – 8:19), a sort of epiphanic moment of great release where the music changes into B major and the brass blare the main theme triumphantly. Here you want the music to have more power, more weight, but Rouvali holds back noticeably. Yet, the buildup to the climax is masterfully shaped, with a haunting bassoon solo and tense string playing that augur the triumph that should follow. The “Scherzo” music that ensues is well played and executed, though the tempo is perhaps a bit rushed and once more the brass at the climax sound a tad restrained.

Still, this movement comes across reasonably well, perhaps because Rouvali's idea is to focus more on the subtleties of this very complex music: the symphony was originally in four movements, but in the final revision Sibelius combined the first two into one and molded their themes and various fragments into a rather unique but puzzling structure that musicologists still find difficult to analyze. In any event, Rouvali makes the music unfold clearly, but in a slightly scaled down manner.

The second movement's playful bucolic character emerges nicely in this energetic performance: marked Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, Rouvali employs lively tempos that fit the emotional tenor of the music, and the playing by the orchestra is spirited. The finale opens effervescently with strings scurrying about breathlessly, a sense of joyous elation pervading the music. The Swan theme is beautifully phrased and played and the rest of the movement comes across convincingly. One curiosity about the finale here is that the grace notes on the last two of those six closing chords are practically given full value as the kettle drums clearly strike well before the rest of the orchestra. Why this is done, I haven't a clue, but it doesn't exactly detract in any significant way from this otherwise brilliantly played final panel. Throughout this work the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra plays splendidly.

The inclusion of Pohjola's Daughter is a nice bonus here. Rouvali and his orchestra deliver a vital, intense account, with quite brisk tempos. I like the performance but as I write this you can hear it for yourself on YouTube.com. Hopefully, it will remain available for a while so you can judge for yourself as well as get an idea of Rouvali's interpretive style in Sibelius. There are also excerpts from other symphonies in this cycle available there.

The sound reproduction in all three works is vivid and certainly of state of the art quality. As for comparisons in these symphonies, not surprisingly, there are many recordings of both. Some fine Sibelius Thirds include Ashkenazy/Philharmonia (Decca) and Maazel/Vienna Philharmonic (Decca); and in the Fifth, Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic (DG), Sakari/Iceland Symphony (Naxos) and Davis/Boston Symphony Orchestra (Pentatone, originally on Philips). I believe all of these, except for Bernstein are part of complete cycles. Bernstein did a complete set in the 1960s and started a second cycle but died before he finished, leaving out Nos 3, 4 and 6. Maazel did two complete cycles (the second for Sony) as has Davis, his second for RCA. And it is Davis from that RCA set that offers Nos 3 and 5 together on a disc that is my first choice in these symphonies. Some find his Sibelius not to their liking, but most others consider him a quite compelling Sibelian. However, Rouvali's CD does have some advantages over the Davis: his sound reproduction is slightly better and he includes Pohjola's Daughter. Moreover, Davis' Third and Fifth may currently be available only as part of his complete set. Your choice then.

Robert Cummings

Published: November 30, 2022



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