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
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 KareliaSuite 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
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.