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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.2 in D major Op.43 (1901-02) [49:35]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Symphonic Dance Op.64 No.2 (1896) [7:17]
Two Elegiac Melodies Op.34 - No.2 'Last Spring' (1882) [5:52]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitrij Kitajenko
rec. 2015/17, Philharmonie Köln; Studio Stolberger Straß, Köln

In recent years I have either collected or reviewed Dmitri Kitajenko’s cycles of symphonies by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Shostakovich as well as multiple single discs of diverse repertoire.. On occasion I have found Kitajenko’s interpretations to challenge convention - often with rewarding and stimulating results. So I would term myself something of an admirer of this conductor. Certainly, his collaboration with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln for the Oehms Classics label has produced a series of superbly played and engineered recordings. Which is why I was looking forward to hearing this team’s take on Sibelius’ stirring Symphony No.2. All I can say is that I am bitterly disappointed. I am not sure I have ever heard such an underwhelming account of this powerful piece. I like my Sibelius craggy; igneous outcrops of sound in stark and powerful juxtaposition. Continuing the geological analogy, for some reason Kitajenko has chosen the path of soft sedimentary rock from which he has further eroded away all sense of edge or angle leaving something smooth and near-featureless. The evidence is there from the very opening bars; yes, Kitajenko obeys the careful dynamic graduations between the mf, mp and p that Sibelius places within the first dozen bars of the work. But the result is oddly somnambulant with none of the underlying tension that I want to hear.

As ever, the playing and engineering is absolutely first rank and as such a pleasure to hear but time and again throughout this performance I wondered why Kitajenko was holding this music (and the players) on such a tight and restricted emotional leash. One characteristic that does endure from other Kitajenko interpretations is a preference for generally broader tempi. I have no general issue with this but there are times here where the pulse almost becomes becalmed. The Second movement poco largamente after letter H in the Breitkopf score is a case in point (track 2 around 4:00). The gaps between the rich and dramatic brass figures become just that - gaps with little sense of a binding pulse. Towards the end of the same movement Sibelius writes a scurrying string figure. Yes, it is only marked f - many performances make much more of this moment – but again all I take from this is the polish and neatness of the Cologne string playing – almost wholly devoid of energy. The third movement marked Vivacissimo is again baffling in its lack of excitement or drama - Kitajenko takes 7:32 whereas Vanska, Mackerras or Berglund, to pick 3 almost at random, from my collection come in almost identically around 6:00. Kitajenko encourages a nicely bouncing one-in-a-bar feel but with no ‘push’ in the underlying beat. For sure the following lento e suave gives the principal oboe a perfect opportunity to display the sheer elegance of their technique but this is little compensation for a performance which to this point has seemed so anaemic. With regard to overall timings; another three random choices; Oramo in Birmingham and Bernstein in New York take around 44:00, Maazel in Vienna a half minute quicker. Not even Karajan at around 47:00 matches Kitajenko’s epic/static 49:35.

Things do improve in the finale a little but whereas with other works Kitajenko’s pacing can seem controversial but convincing, here it simply becomes laboured and predictable but not in a good way. He is prone to add unmarked rallentandi which are quite traditional but if they start from the point of a fairly slow basic tempo, the loss of further forward movement is dangerously enervating. Even the closing pages which should expand into a majestic hymn to life here seems tempered by a sense of decorum – Kitajenko does not adjust the timpani part in the closing pages – which Mackerras did to such great effect in his RPO/Tring recording – but to be fair neither do Sibelius experts such as Vanska or Berglund. I really expected this piece and performance to play to Kitajenko’s considerable interpretative strengths; the all-round failure has left me completely surprised. Putting aside the quality of the actual playing and good engineering - as an interpretation alone this is pretty near to the bottom of a long list of versions I know.

Then, rather perversely, the disc is completed by a pair of quasi-encores that are absolute gems. Why we are given two Grieg pieces recorded twenty-six months after the Sibelius as companion works I have no idea. But this is Kitajenko at his inspired best. I have never heard the Grieg Symphonic Dance No.2 played so slowly or so undancelike. Engeset with the RSNO on Naxos in his Grieg cycle takes 6:29 and a slower Ruud in Bergen for BIS 6:50, Kitajenko stretches this simple music to 7:17 transforming it from dance to mood painting. Phrasing which in Sibelius sounds forced here is beautifully expressive – more opportunities for the principal oboe again – this is quite gorgeous even if it could be accused of weighing down Grieg’s artless creation with excess ‘meaning’. Likewise, the second of the two Elegiac Melodies - Last Spring. Here, Kitajenko’s basic tempo is more ‘standard’ but the stand-out quality comes from the warmth and richness of the Cologne strings and the touching simplicity and effectiveness of the handling of the musical arch. This work sums up Grieg’s particular genius in distilling down heart-felt emotion into pieces of superficial brevity and lack of complexity.

Oehms back up their usual quality recording with a good if fairly brief liner note in their usual bi-lingual German & English format. I cannot say that the thirteen minutes of magical Grieg rescues the disc from the fifty minutes of lumberingly dull Sibelius that precedes it. I am not sure quite when a performance has disappointed me more.

Nick Barnard


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