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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1956)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 43
Finlandia, Op 26
The Cleveland Orchestra/Yoel Levi
recorded in the Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio, 2 April 1984
TELARC CD-80095 [48'51"]

I’ve recently been sent three Telarc reissues for review, all conducted by Yoel Levi - this excellent Sibelius 2; an enjoyable Mussorgsky collection, including Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition (CD-80296); and a superb Mahler 6 (CD-80444). Following hard on the heals of Peter Hill’s listing, on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Record Review’, of Levi’s Sacre du printemps as the No 1 recording (CD-80266) of Stravinsky’s premier league test-piece it’s good to be reminded of Levi’s impressive credentials and achievements.

Dating from the early digital era, this disc was recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra, before Levi took up his post in Atlanta. But you’d never know, such is the maturity of the music-making; and the warmth, clarity and weight of the recording. I use the word ‘maturity’ here advisedly, because you’d never guess that a young man was at the helm. Everything is impeccably judged, and nothing is overstated. In the finale in particular, he avoids any suggestion of excess or vulgarity. And yet only those accustomed to top-gear performances could possibly be disappointed.

The recording is admirably faithful. No wonder Telarc’s early CDs quickly acquired a reputation for genuinely high fidelity. The strings in the opening bars have a lovely, velvety tone, whereas the woodwinds’ chattering phrases have a crystalline clarity and the sense of front-to-rear perspective heightens the contrasts in Sibelius’ material. In the haunting second movement, the multi-dimensional nature of the recording illuminates the scoring of the walking bass (shared between cellos and double-basses) beautifully. To crown it all, the closing pages have a tremendous depth and weight. In terms of sound, this is second to none in the catalogue.

Levi is one of that rare breed of artists who give you what the composer wrote, without any intrusive ‘interpretation’. This is a performance to live with - a disc of the Second Symphony, not the Second Symphony seen through the eyes of X, Y or Z. What a pity about the coupling, though. Competitors generally offer you another symphony, and (on a reissue of a 20-year-old performance!) that is what we ought to have here. ‘Beginners’ wanting to build a Sibelius collection need look no further than the legendary Ashkenazy-Philharmonia performances on Decca - a matchless bargain. But do try to hear Levi too!

Peter J Lawson

see also review by Rob Barnett

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