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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899, rev. 1900) [8:41]
Karelia suite, Op. 11 (1893) [16:47]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901-1902) [44:50]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 15-16 October 2015, Philharmonie im Gasteig (Finlandia, Karelia); 12-13 November 2015, Herkulessaal (symphony)
BR KLASSIK 900144 [70:18]

As I remarked in my review of Mariss Jansons’ BRSO account of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony and Suk’s Serenade he’s not a conductor I normally warm to. That said his RCO Mahler certainly has its moments and his Tchaikovsky cycle with the Oslo Philharmonic is still one of the finest in the catalogue. He also recorded some of the Sibelius symphonies and tone poems with the same forces in 1992-1994 (review). He seems fond of the Second Symphony, which he recorded with the Concertgebouw in 2006 (RCO Live RCO5005).

The Sibelius celebrations in 2015 yielded some truly memorable releases, chief among them Okko Kamu’s Lahti set of the seven symphonies (review). I found their account of the Op. 43 especially magnificent. As a survey it’s every bit as distinguished as Osmo Vänskä’s multi-award-winning traversal with the same orchestra, which dates from 1996-1997 (review). As for Finlandia and the Karelia Suite there are dozens in the catalogue, including two from Vänskä; I’m particularly fond of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s wonderfully sonorous performances, part of his celebrated Decca box (review). These are also available on a Double Decca of tone poems, shared with Horst Stein and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

Finlandia is probably one of the best-known ‘signature pieces’ in the canon; and rightly so, for its blend of gruffness and grandeur is the perfect expression of the country’s new-found confidence at the time. Others – Vänskä and Ashkenazy among them – find a darker, richer sound here than Jansons does. However, there’s a stark muscularity to the latter’s reading that’s just as compelling. I’m surprised by the amount of reverb in this recording, though. That said, it adds a sense of space to the performance; it certainly doesn’t blunt transients or muddy textures. The well-mannered applause is faded after a few seconds.

The Karelia suite, a sliver of the complete work, has some of the best tunes. As for that jaunty opening to the Intermezzo it’s one of the most distinctive things Sibelius ever wrote; an ear-worm if ever there was one. In Jansons’ hands it starts well enough, but what follows has a foursquare, vaguely Austro-Germanic character that I find very off-putting. Indeed, there are times when I thought I was listening to Suppé rather than Sibelius. And then there are the usual interventions, manifested in awkward phrases and exaggerated dynamics. I daresay that won’t deter Jansons fans, but it does me. Once again the applause is quickly curtailed.

Those issues pale into insignificance when it comes to the symphony. In his review of Jansons’ Oslo set Rob Barnett felt the conductor was ‘sympathetic to the Sibelian ethic’. Maybe then, but I’m not sure about now. After Kamu’s vivid, superbly terraced approach Jansons’ seems slightly grey and one-dimensional. The surging start to the Allegretto lacks mystery, and the ensuing string theme is out of kilter with what follows in both scale and character. If sweeping, full-bodied Sibelius is your thing this performance probably won’t work for you; however, if you like it terse and lean it probably will.

Even then I don’t feel Jansons shapes and builds the music as convincingly as others do; his tendency to parenthesise doesn’t help. As for the score’s nodal points they seem to pass unnoticed. If one were to think in terms of topography this performance is all about modest inclines and gentle declivities; it’s certainly not the rugged terrain one expects in this piece. That said, the playing is very good – the Andante and Vivacissimo are attractively done – but for depth of feeling and breathtaking luminosity Kamu is the one to beat. Besides, the latter’s recording is in a class of its own.

Let’s be clear, I like nothing better than to be confronted with a challenging view of a familiar piece – after all, masterpieces lend themselves to contrasting approaches – but, alas, this is not one of those occasions. True, there are hints of something special – that great, see-sawing start to the finale, for instance – but then Jansons withdraws into what I can only describe as diffidence. Moreover, his fascination with detail speaks more of fastidiousness than of a sense of discovery. And where Kamu finds genuine nobility in the closing pages Jansons merely mimics it. The brief burst of applause suggests the audience loved it; perhaps you had to be there.

A thrilling Finlandia, an odd Karelia and a very individual take on the symphony; for Jansons fans only.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

 

 




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