Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Pohjola’s Daughter - Symphonic Fantasy, Op.49 (1906) [13:13]
The Oceanides, Op.73 (1913/14) [10:23]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901) [45:45]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 4 February 2007 (Op. 49) Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK; 2 August 2006 BBC Studio 7, Manchester, UK (Op. 73); live, 19-20 September 2012, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Op. 43)
HALLÉ CD HLL 7516 [70:59]
Sir Mark Elder is now approaching his thirteenth season as musical director of the Hallé and has had great success in building the orchestra’s international reputation. The development of performance consistency has been the key as it is now extremely rare to attend a Hallé concert that doesn’t stimulate, satisfy and delight. Recent double successes in the 2010 and 2011 Gramophone Awards have demonstrated how the Hallé continue to go from strength to strength. The orchestra was short-listed as a double finalist in the 2013 BBC Music Magazine for Wagner’s Die Walküre and Elgar’s The Apostles with the latter winning the prestigious ‘Recording of the Year’ award.
For their new release the Hallé has returned to the music of Sibelius with recordings of the perennially popular Symphony No.2. This is coupled with Pohjola’s Daughter and The Oceanides,both easily accessible works that do not find their way onto the concert hall programmes as often as their quality deserves. The Hallé has long been associated with Sibelius. It gave the British première of the Symphony No.2 in 1905 under Hans Richter. In 1943 when Barbirolli took over the Hallé he soon began thrilling audiences with his interpretations of the Second Symphony. I’m sure that many music-lovers will have grown up with Barbirolli’s excellent Sibelius EMI recordings too. Now it’s Elder’s Hallé interpretations that are taking on the Barbirolli mantle and the major work on this release is the much loved Second Symphony. It wasrecorded live at two of the four Bridgewater Hall concerts in September 2012. I did report from one of those Bridgewater Hall performances but not one that was recorded.
In 1901 Sibelius wasn’t looking out onto wintry and majestic Finnish landscapes as he wrote much of his Symphony No.2. Insteadhe was experiencing the warm climate of Italy primarily in the Mediterranean coastal town of Rapallo. This must have been a difficult time emotionally for Sibelius and his wife who had recently lost their youngest daughter to typhoid fever. Whilst in Italy another daughter had become dangerously ill. The March 1902 première of the Second Symphony conducted by Sibelius in Helsinki was a triumph as Finnish audiences identified with the patriotic spirit of the music. Sir Mark’s impassioned performance is totally gripping, generating real excitement. Splendidly controlled and executed with palpable shape and momentum this is world class playing. I love the way all the melodic blocks are brought together to make a compelling outpouring of Finnish nationalistic fervour. The dark-hued writing of the slow movement Tempo andante, ma rubato has emotional weight and the brass fanfares at the heart of the movement shine out like beacons. The Vivacissimo exuberance of the Scherzo contrasts with its melancholic central section focused around the deeply felt oboe melody, played gloriously by principal Stéphane Rancourt. In the finale the way Sir Mark builds up towards its exultant conclusion is outstanding with the big patriotic theme sounding astonishingly full, fresh and powerfully dramatic. Noticeable throughout is how the homogeneous Hallé strings have developed significant body. They also possess an appealing silvery timbre that is a match for the finest orchestras around.
Written between the second and third symphonies, Sibelius completed Pohjola's Daughter in 1906. The composer introduced the work in December that year in St Petersburg conducting the Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre. Sibelius provided a programme outline concerning the epic Kalevala story of Finnish folklore. Väinämöinen, the wizard hero has to perform a number of heroic labours to win the hand of the beautiful maiden, daughter of the Northland god, Pohjola. This Hallé recording of Pohjola's Daughter was made in February 2007 under studio conditions at the Bridgewater Hall. In the hands of principal Nick Trygstad the opening solo cello melody feels like a religious chant. There is a spicy, pungent aroma suggesting an almost middle-eastern exoticism and an undercurrent of foreboding is never far away. Sir Mark adeptly gathers pace, increases weight and darkens in colour before igniting the dramatic final climax.
Completed by Sibelius in 1914 just prior to finishing his Fifth Symphony, the tone poem The Oceanides was a commission for the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut. Crossing the Atlantic to première the work that same year Sibelius undertook much rewriting during the voyage. It seems that the Greek mythology of Homer was the inspiration behind The Oceanides not Sibelius’s more usual Finnish legends. Whatever the motivation Sir Mark draws a vivid potency from the writing, culminating in a terrific sea storm. A riveting intensity to the brilliant orchestral playing is marked by blazing brass and colourful woodwind over a luxuriant bed of strings. The Oceanides was recorded in BBC Studio 7, part of the now demolished New Broadcasting House, Oxford Road, Manchester.
Sir Mark Elder is an inspirational conductor and there aren’t too many of those around today. Playing with dramatic bite the Hallé is certainly on its finest form with this all-Sibelius disc. Excellent sound quality adds to the desirability of this release. As the Sibelius First andThird Symphonies were released by the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder in 2009 (CDHLL7514) it is to be hoped that a series of the Sibelius symphonies is in the offing.
With the current interest in British music gaining hold, fingers crossed that the symphonies and tone poems of Arnold Bax might be planned for future Hallé programmes.
Playing with dramatic bite the Hallé is certainly on its finest form here.
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See also review by John Quinn