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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op 63 [41:07]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op 104 (1922-23) [28:41]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2018/2019, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLL7553 [70:03]

With this release Sir Mark Elder reaches, I presume, the end of his Sibelius symphony cycle with the Hallé, unless he has any thoughts of adding the early Kullervo. The previous issues in this series have been enthusiastically received by MusicWeb International reviewers: Symphonies 1 and 3 (review); Symphony No 2 (review); Symphonies 5 and 7 (review). Whether by accident or design, Sir Mark has left until last the most uncompromising of the symphonies, the Fourth, and the one which I believe is still the most underrated, the Sixth.

Stephen Johnson has supplied the booklet notes and I love his description of the opening of the Fourth: “like a door opening slowly onto a sombre new world.” The Hallé’s principal cellist, Nicholas Trygstad invests his solo with just the right note of lugubrious mystery. As the movement unfolds, Elder demonstrates a sure feel for the powerful, brooding architecture and he optimises the impact of the gaunt scoring. I experienced a genuine sense that inner demons are being faced in the music. The recorded sound helps too: there’s a satisfying depth to the bass foundation and, indeed, the sound is excellent in all respects. Elder’s performance is a compelling one in which the climaxes rise up out of the texture like craggy peaks. At first, the second movement seems much lighter in character; the strings and the excellent oboist (Stéphane Rancourt) seem almost capricious. However, the music gradually becomes more unsettled and Elder brings out well the mounting unease expressed by Sibelius.

If the second movement is unsettled, then its successor is downright unsettling. The gaunt and forbidding third movement is an astonishing piece of writing. Sibelius begins in an atmosphere of chill darkness which fragments of melody strive to penetrate. Once again, Stephen Johnson supplies the mot juste. He likens the process by which Sibelius incrementally fashions these fragments into a coherent tune as “rather like watching a speeded-up film of a plant growing”. Precisely because the thematic material is initially so fragmentary it must be challenging for a conductor to hold the music together but Elder certainly achieves that through the great focus he brings. Not until 4:34 does Sibelius finally reveal his melody and thereafter the structure is rather easier to discern. This is strange, searching music but Elder reveals its mysteries with great understanding until at last he and his orchestra reach the movement’s drained end. After all that preceding darkness it’s something of a surprise to find the finale includes the bright treble sound of a glockenspiel. Initially, the music is quite extrovert and I hear occasional echoes of the Second and Third symphonies. However, from 2:40 it’s as if Sibelius becomes less sure of himself and the music – and its present performance – seem much more troubled. Eventually, from about 7:30 Sibelius builds up the tension to an anguished climax which is powerfully thrust home by Elder and his orchestra. They convey with equal success the stoic resignation in the bleak coda. This is a fine interpretation and performance of the great Fourth Symphony.

The Sixth could scarcely be more different in character. The gentle, luminous string polyphony at the outset is beautifully rendered here. There’s great purity in the writing during the first movement and the Hallé plays it marvellously. The tempo picks up at 2:16 and the music becomes fast-flowing but still retains that purity I mentioned. The notes repeat Sibelius’ oft-quoted remark about the musical equivalent of “the purest spring water”. Applied to this present performance, I’d say that the water has a definite sparkle. In addition to dexterity, the playing shows expert internal balance within the orchestra. There isn’t a slow movement as such; the second movement is marked Allegretto moderato. It’s an enigmatic movement and I mean no disrespect to Elder and his orchestra when I say that it’s hard to grasp the elusive character of the music; that’s no reflection on their fine performance.

They are just as convincing in the short third movement. Initially, the music is very light on its feet, eventually becoming quite fiery. After a measured start, the finale justifies its headline marking of Allegro molto once Sibelius hits his straps (1:46). Thereafter, this performance is full of energy and drive. I love the way that eventually (at 5:16), Sibelius reprises the music with which the symphony began, albeit at a faster speed, and makes a good deal of this material. That’s a precursor to the extended passage (from 7:28), first for strings and wind and eventually for strings alone, which brings the symphony to a radiant and very satisfying close. I really enjoyed Elder’s bracing account of this symphony.

Sir Mark Elder’s Sibelius cycle has ended on a high note. Perhaps he tires of being linked with Sir John Barbirolli but the linkage is inevitable, given that these two distinguished conductors of the Hallé have been, in their different ways, such distinguished interpreters of a number of composers: Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Sibelius. This Sibelius cycle is surely in the finest traditions of the orchestra. Anyone who has been following this Elder cycle should not hesitate to acquire this final instalment.

I don’t know if the recordings were made live at concerts, as is often the way with this label. There’s no information in the booklet to indicate that an audience was present – nor are there any sounds which indicate an audience. So, these recordings may be the product of studio sessions. Engineer Steve Portnoi has produced excellent sound for both symphonies. Stephen Johnson’s notes are up to his usual high standard.

John Quinn

Information received

Subsequent to the publication of this review, I have been contacted by Geoffrey Owen, Head of Artistic Planning, Hallé Concerts Society. Mr Owen has kindly clarified that these recordings were made under studio conditions.

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