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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 (1893) [15:33]
En Saga, Op. 9 (1892) [17:47]
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 (1906) [14:12]
Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 3* (1895) [8:17]
Finlandia, Op. 26, No. 7 (1899) [8:02]
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
* Patrick McFarland (English horn)
rec. 8 February, 16, 18 May 1992, Woodruff Memorial Arts Centre, Atlanta, Georgia
TELARC CD-80320 [64:32]


As luck would have it I’ve auditioned several excellent Telarc discs recently, two of them featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles. The Spano includes Christopher Theofanidis’ terrific Rainbow Body, the Runnicles a mix of Wagner and Richard Strauss. In both cases I felt the music making and the recordings were up to the usual standards of the house, so I approached this all-Sibelius disc with high hopes.

The Karelia Suite, written for a ‘patriotic pageant’, dates from 1899 and has one of the most atmospheric openings around. Immediately I was struck by the recessed recording, the distant bass growl growing to that glorious flag-waving climax on the brass. It’s a breathtaking, majestic moment and one expects the music to blaze forth from the speakers. Regrettably, it doesn’t. In fact Levi’s tempi seem way too leisurely throughout, so that essential forward thrust is quickly lost. By comparison, Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia on a Decca twofer (4525762) generate all the excitement and splendour this music demands. And where Telarc usually scores in terms of sonics I have to say the brighter, more forward Decca recording suits this music very well indeed. The set also includes En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter, Luonnotar, Tapiola, Night Ride and Sunrise and Four Legends from the Kalevala.

I wondered how the longer, more brooding En Saga would fare. It certainly has some haunting horn playing and Stygian brass but again that all-important drive is missing. Even the ‘big tune’ - dramatically underpinned by the bass drum - sounds like a run-through. In fact this piece made me think of Mahler, not in terms of soundscape but of pulse. In the case of both composers their music succumbs very quickly if the conductor doesn’t find that life-giving beat under the skin. Sir Colin Davis finds it; Ashkenazy does, too. Unfortunately Levi doesn’t.

Originally Sibelius gave Pohjola’s Daughter the title Väinämöinen after the character in the Kalevala (the Finnish national epic) but his German publisher Robert Lienau was less keen, insisting on the title we know today. The trademark Sibelian sonorities are there and the music has some impressive moments, but for a work that taps into Nordic legend it’s surprisingly short on incident. That said, Sir Colin Davis makes a more convincing job of it in his LSO Live disc (LSO 0105) coupled with the 2nd Symphony. It is also available in a splendid SACD version (LSO 0605).

The Swan of Tuonela was originally composed in 1893 as the prelude to a projected Wagnerian opera called The Building of the Boat but Sibelius recast it two years later as the second part of the Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op. 22. Scored for strings and harp, plus a solo for English horn, it depicts the mythical swan gliding around Tuonela, the island of the dead. There is some lovely muted playing from the strings and a fine (if somewhat distant) contribution from Patrick McFarland on the English horn, but for all that it remains a rather detached reading.

Finlandia, probably Sibelius’s most overtly nationalistic piece, is something of an orchestral showpiece. The opening brass chords are well captured, although the timps seem curiously muffled. There should be a real sense of craggy grandeur here, of soaring peaks and ever-widening vistas, but the piece remains stubbornly earthbound. Again Ashkenazy is in a different league; the Philharmonia brass and percussion play as if possessed and the recording has splendid glitter and bite. The final moments of this great score should be spine-tingling in their cumulative power and weight (as indeed they are under Ashkenazy) but regrettably the Atlanta band just doesn’t rise to the occasion.

On the face of it this is a desirable disc, bringing together some of Sibelius’s best known tone poems and incidental music, but the truth is that these pieces are much, much better played elsewhere. Sir Colin Davis’s idiomatic Sibelius is self-recommending - as with Berlioz, this conductor really has an affinity with Sibelius that shines through every bar. Ashkenazy is perhaps a little uneven in this repertoire, but his Karelia and Finlandia are firm favourites of mine.

So, a chance for both orchestra and engineers to shine but these readings are generally uninspiring and probably won’t bear repeated listening. Given the band’s more recent successes under Spano and Runnicles one can only assume the Atlantans were not at their very best in the early 1990s. In short, a golden opportunity sadly missed.

Dan Morgan



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