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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899) [39:03]1
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1907) [29:50]2
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 1BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 1-2 August 2006. 2Bridgewater Hall, Manchester concert, 26 April 2007. DDD
HALLE CD HLL 7514 [68:58]

Experience Classicsonline


Symphony No. 1 may well be Sibelius at his most romantic and diffuse but it’s also a very attractive work and Mark Elder certainly conveys this. The clarinet introduction is an elegy sung with seamless outpouring, the violins’ response tingles and the first theme has both flexibility and edge. The first climax is grand with fine brass contributions. The second theme on flutes and harps (tr. 1 3:28) is frisky and dancing, while the more significant third theme introduced by oboe but soon intertwined with flute and clarinet is fittingly momentous in character despite the tranquillo marking, a fascinating paradox. The stretto and crescendo from 4:32 is stylishly vigorous but Elder also neatly details the sudden intimacy of the passage for two solo violins from 5:06. The shadowy version of the first theme in the woodwind from 6:53 in the development in fluent yet troubled delivery is another paradox Elder enjoys before its shining forth in the strings in the recapitulation at 7:44.

I compared the 1966 recording with the Halle by Elder’s distinguished predecessor, Sir John Barbirolli (EMI 5 67299 2). The comparative timings are:-



















Barbirolli’s slightly more expansive measure creates a more torrid, visceral account emphasised by a brighter if more shrill recording than Elder’s more rounded balance. Barbirolli’s introduction is plainer, more direct and dramatic. The first theme is more arresting, sinewy and physical, the first climax more raw and intense. The third theme is more poetic, though the build up in the development is rather deliberate. Elder’s presentation overall is smoother with more attention to the broad picture but the climax (9:10), because of this fluency and progression, isn’t as searing as Barbirolli’s nor is there his sense in the aftermath of being wrenched away from the emotion.

In the slow movement (tr. 2) Elder’s more flowing tempo for the soft opening theme makes it even more tender than Barbirolli’s and his pp repeat of its second strain as a refrain (0:54) even more melting. Elder’s treatment of the balmy interlude led by the horns (3:14) is dreamier than Barbirolli’s with more of a sense of the suspension of time. The return of the opening theme (4:25) reaffirms the serious heart of things but without the leaden sombreness of Barbirolli. Elder’s poco a poco stringendo passage from 6:15 is more playful and analytic, where Barbirolli is more exciting. Nevertheless Elder’s climax is tremendously high powered and Elder points more contrast in the final return of the theme. While it and its tempo are identical, the added cross rhythms in the second violins and violas create a more halting, sorrowing vein.

Elder’s Scherzo is a more pacy Allegro than Barbirolli’s yet without his grit. The strings’ theme is more dance like from Barbirolli but Elder shows more vigour in the later sforzandi, more energy and playfulness in the following quaver runs. To the Trio he brings a cool feel of suspended animation, in more marked contrast than Barbirolli who is relaxedly unhurried. Here Elder is dreamier, more suave, graceful. Elder also has a splendidly crisp stretto Scherzo close, if not quite as exciting as Barbirolli’s.

To the finale’s opening Elder brings searing emotion albeit observed at something of a distance, in the audience rather than Barbirolli’s raw, passionate pulling you on stage. But Elder’s presentation of the Allegro molto (tr. 4 1:55) is more mettlesome,  less rhetorical with more sense of a maelstrom. Elder’s presents the big tune (3:35) less richly than Barbirolli yet with a more natural flow and attractive dusky quality, beginning at a more sensitive mf and only gradually louder as the horns take over seamlessly at 4:57. His development (5:41) is more feathery and scherzo like than Barbirolli’s, less frenzied but more virtuoso. Elder’s sorrowing clarinet recapitulation of the big tune (7:45) is more eloquent while its closing blaze, satisfyingly lyrical, is more reflective than Barbirolli’s greater fire, breadth and Tchaikovskian ardour.

The lower strings’ beginning of Elder’s account of Symphony No. 3 (tr. 5) radiates rustic jollity and vigour, the jollity confirmed by the woodwind and exulting onward sweep to the first climax. Then the second theme sustained on the cellos (1:24) subtly swells through the trimly ticking quaver texture of second violins and violas. The first violins respond (2:30) with a becalmed mirror image transformation, beautifully lyrical in this performance, before with calm ascents of the upper strings and first violins’ leaps we seem to be in ballet mode. The development finds the second theme in a sultry bassoon solo (4:49) with the now ever present semiquavers of the first theme in tow. Elder makes this all a gripping progression and the louder, bleaker return of the second theme on full strings (7:01) is set against a stark woodwind ostinato in quavers. The coda (8:42) provides a novelty in the form of a wind chorale, a benediction with closing Amen on full orchestra.

I compared another concert performance, or rather a recording created from two performances in 2003 by the London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis (LSO Live LSO 0051). My comparative timings below give actual music timings for the finale:-
















Being more measured in the first movement makes Davis somewhat more deliberate, so you’re aware of structure as much as progression. Davis’ second theme is more soulfully, romantically treated, more writhing where Elder is more probing, earnestly questioning. Davis does bring more poise to the upper strings’ ascents and more telling mystery to the ballet like material but Elder makes the bassoon solo in the development more urgent and in balance with the strings’ accompaniment. Similarly Elder’s return of the second theme with woodwind ostinato is more arresting. Davis’ coda is calm, assured and expansive, Elder’s is more purposeful.

The central movement (tr. 6), marked Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto is presented by Elder emphasising the con moto aspect. The flutes lead a parade joined by clarinets and Elder brings a keen edge to it against  a backcloth of sustained horn notes and offbeat touches from divided violins. There’s a warmer texture and appreciable swing when the tune appears on divided violins at 1:54, the effect that of a refracted waltz. At 3:33 cellos divided in three provide a string chorale of yearning nature.  In a brief contrasting section from 5:56 pizzicato strings’ activity and breezy woodwind material proves inconsequential before divided violins bring back the theme over which woodwind provide more evocative touches of melodic expansion. Elder observes this all scrupulously but leaves you to gauge exactly the mood. Davis’ slower tempo secures a more lilting, comforting woodwind opening with warm strings’ support, a sonorous glow yet also lightness of touch and phrasing. His passages for divided cellos are richly contemplative and expansive, if not as aching. His contrasting section is a fresher episodic diversion of more dramatic character.

The emotional directness of Elder’s finale (tr. 7) is striking. Its beginning is joyful, if reflectively so. The second theme (1:06) is warier, its key elements duplicated in an ostinato for muted violins. Its progress is full of incident and atmosphere, notably the passage from 2:08 when the violins’ mutes come off and the heavy accents in low register have a grim resolve and efficiency, vividly relished by Elder. Yet in the development (3:11) the second theme is rigorously and here rather spikily discussed in purely musical terms, albeit with the emotional effect at the same time of a storm brewing. The short passages marked tranquillo, the first at 3:56, are only just acknowledged. Instead of a recapitulation there’s a new big tune (4:23) whose compelling progress is an amalgam of stolidity and irresistible belief. It can plead and it can bristle. It can be calm and assertive. It can be gritty and warm too. So sit back and enjoy Elder’s fine control of the gradual crescendo of the strings from 7:00 adding to the effect of an unquenchable force and the braying horns at 7:49.

Davis’ finale, taken at a slightly faster tempo, has a more active character throughout, giving the second theme a more frolicsome manner but the later accents in the violins are more lightly treated. His development is more emotive than Elder’s with a greater spread swathe of string sound, notable in the SACD recording (LSO 0552). Davis gets more nuance from the dynamic contrasts within the presentation of the big tune and more bounce from its reappearance with different spotlighting: when the horns join in. Elder is more consistent in delivery but less exultant in effect, a powerful, orderly march rather than Davis’ sense of heady hurtling to the destination.

In sum, then, Elder provides satisfyingly symphonic accounts with sensitive attention to balance, structure, phrasing and dynamics. Comparisons show a more dramatic, torrid approach to Sibelius is possible. Which Sibelius you prefer, or whether like me you like on occasion to be able to choose between the two, is your choice.

Michael Greenhalgh


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