RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1902) [46:14]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1915, rev. 1919) [30:50]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. June 2011, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis
BIS BIS-SACD-1986 [78:04]
Few things are certain in this world, but here’s one that is. I won’t be placing these performances in rank order compared to the finest available. With so many to choose from, only a fool would attempt that. I might, though, compare them, just a little, to a couple of my own favourite performances, which is not at all the same thing. Amongst the rival versions I won’t be considering are Osmo Vänskä’s previous performances on BIS with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. These have been widely reviewed and praised, which is no surprise to me, but I haven’t heard them.
One of the first things to strike one about this performance of the Second Symphony is what an uncompromising piece it is. Where Barbirolli, in his magnificent EMI performance - the only reading of his that I have heard - sees the work as a big romantic symphony, rich and vibrant, Vänskä makes of it something altogether leaner and more modern sounding. The first movement is played as a real Allegretto, and while Vänskä’s control of tempo is infinitely subtle, the various changes of mood are never exaggerated or overblown, and are always seen within the context of a single, basic pulse. Vänskä brings out a huge amount of detail simply by the following the composer’s instructions, and this is a feature of both performances. The orchestra plays fortissimo, for example, when, and only when, the composer requests it. If the little trumpet fanfare that follows the first phrase at the opening of the finale surprises you, just look at the score: Vänskä’s players do exactly what is marked. Some might find the result a little restrained; there is a certain coolness and detachment about this reading, and those who want their Sibelius to fire on all cylinders might be disappointed. I found the effect all the more powerful for this hint of restraint. Orchestral balance is impeccable, and Vänskä is very attentive the composer’s frequently surprising orchestral choices. Has the role of the tuba in the slow movement ever been so carefully managed as this, for example? The scherzo goes at a cracking pace, with some remarkably quiet playing. The unison and octave string melodies of the finale tend to sound like Tchaikovsky, even in a reading such as this, but whereas Bernstein, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on DG, makes the closing pages sound almost like Mahler, Vänskä, whilst conceding nothing in terms of power, never lets us forget that Vienna is quite another world.
A few months ago, reviewing Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s performance of the Fifth Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, I commented on the lack of mystery and anticipation in the opening bars. There’s not much of either in Vänskä’s performance, but instead there is a kind of fresh-faced openness such as I don’t ever remember hearing in this symphony and which is quite captivating, testament to the established fact that notes are only notes, and can be made to tell quite different stories depending on how they are realised. This Fifth shares with the Second a tendency to clean textures and a refusal to linger. Vänskä prefers to keep a tight rein on those passages that other conductors have seen as expansive romantic gestures. Again, the insistence on purity of tone and absolute ensemble reveals the uncompromising nature of Sibelius’ scoring. Never have the “foreign” notes in accompanying brass chords sounded so foreign as they do here; nor, in my experience, has any other conductor so brilliantly brought out the near-constant use of woodwind instruments in pairs. Vänskä, like Simon Rattle in Birmingham (EMI), coaxes astonishingly quiet playing from his orchestra in the central passages of the first and last movements. His reluctance to linger produces a slow movement which some will feel lacks something in terms of calm and repose. For the rest, the crucial points - the transition between the first and second movements, the long majestic final passage of the finale, and, especially, the gradual accelerando in the second movement - are paced in masterly fashion by this master conductor. I’m always disappointed when a conductor chooses not to count out the beats of silence between the massive final chords. Vänskä comes closer than most, and the close of the work is mightily impressive, but Rattle is almost alone in insisting that Sibelius knew what he wanted here.
My favourite Sibelius Second Symphony is conducted by Barbirolli with the Hallé on EMI, but Bernstein’s reading, grotesquely inflated though it be, is hugely compelling too. Vänskä is very different from both, intellectually more convincing, perhaps more authentic. Amongst Fifths, Rattle is very fine, and Barbirolli again, despite the naughty addition of one note from the first trumpet in the final pages, but the reading that has come closest to my vision of this astonishing masterpiece is that by Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on Decca. These fearless performances from Vänskä, magnificently played by the Minnesota Orchestra, recorded in astonishing detail by the BIS engineers, and accompanied by an authoritative note by Robert Layton, now join that exclusive and elevated class.
Superb performances - these go straight to the top of my list.