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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
*Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82 (1915/1919) [31:38]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)

Pan and Syrinx (Pastorale for Orchestra), Op. 49 (1917-8) [8:26]
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 "The Inextinguishable" (1915-6) [37:39]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, *Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. September 1984, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick; *October 1981, Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 50999 5 03428 2 2 [76:59]
Experience Classicsonline


I have to admit I never understood the fuss over Simon Rattle, based on his early flurry of recordings. It wasn't until I attended one of his actual concerts -- a Dream of Gerontius at the 1986 Edinburgh Festival, roughly contemporaneous with his studio recording - that I realized what exactly he was doing: carefully applying dynamic control to bring out the expansive contours of the musical phrase. The resulting sense of a continuing ebb and flow could make for compelling results.

The problem was that Rattle frequently concentrated on realizing his preferred phrasing to the exclusion of everything else. Precision as such seemed not to interest him - attacks and releases in the concert Gerontius tended to be gently smudged - nor did clear textures, nor firm rhythmic grounding. On record, lacking the usual visual clues as well as the conductor's charismatic podium presence - which clearly drew the players, as well as the audience, into his artistic vision - Rattle's performances, for all his care over individual musical strands, could sound thick and shapeless as a whole.

The opening of this Sibelius rather neatly illustrates the plusses and minuses of the conductor's approach. After the firm, clear horn-call, Rattle teases the various statements of the woodwind motif almost note by note, guiding and building them. But the sticky legato blunts the rhythmic definition, and the crest of the musical arc at 0:57 is a dull plop, setting the stage for a sluggish reading of the movement. Even the trumpet's syncopated theme in the coda fails to provide forward impetus.

The mushy, under-committed wind chorale which begins the slow movement at least suggests the right prayerful feeling; but when the strings enter with contrasting material, the chorale stops registering as a theme - a contrapuntal element - and turns into a sort of all-purpose thickening agent. Rattle understands the finale's broad nobility, but in striving for mass and weight, he burdens the horns' "Thor's hammer" theme with thick tenutos that impede forward motion. By the time the trumpets take up this theme in the home stretch, it's become soggy and dispirited, and the important landing at 8:27 is another dull plop. Unexpectedly, the final chord sequence is terrific -- clean, firm, and impeccably balanced - but it's too little, too late.

Moving to Nielsen, the conductor doesn't bind the discrete episodes of the "pastorale" Pan and Syrinx into a coherent whole. Rhythmic address in tutti remains slack and laissez-faire, and to play all the little oboe solos for pathos, as Rattle does, rather than for stoic resignation constitutes a fundamental aesthetic misreading.

The Inextinguishable, on the other hand, comes off rather well. It doesn't hurt that Rattle was working with "his" City of Birmingham Symphony, rather than guesting with the relatively unfamiliar Philharmonia - though that was also true for Pan and Syrinx. The design of the piece also better plays to the conductor's strengths - listen to the firm, carefully guided surge of the violin phrases - and the mode of attack is altogether more alert. The woodwind chorale of the Poco allegretto is more hushed and devotional than that in the Sibelius, though it remains overly soft-edged for my taste. In the Poco adagio, quasi andante, Rattle excels in shaping the quieter expressive pages, drawing the woodwind interruptions - foreshadowing the Fifth Symphony's ostinatos - in sharp relief; and he projects the finale's grandeur without undue heaviness.

So this Inextinguishable, while not consistently superior, has its distinctive points, and it's garbed in decent sonics: the tuttis are a bit congested and too insistently in-your-face, but the well-tuned tympani register clearly without causing a textural muddle, as can happen in so many more recent recordings. Unfortunately, the competition is formidable: even if we put aside the brilliant Martinon (RCA) and Bernstein (Sony) accounts, Blomstedt (Decca), Barbirolli (EMI Phoenixa), and Mehta (Decca) have served up more consistent realizations. And many recorded Sibelius Fifths, beginning with Gibson's (Chandos), are preferable to Rattle's.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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