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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major Op.43 (1901-02) [45:29]
King Christian II (Suite), Op. 27 [25:10]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Santu-Matias Rouvali
rec. 2019, Gothenburg Symphony Hall, Sweden
ALPHA CLASSICS 574 [70:43]

I heard Santu-Matias Rouvali conduct live recently and was very impressed, so I had high hopes for this recording. I was not disappointed; his affinity with Sibelius, the greatest Finnish composer and his compatriot, is apparent from the first gently pulsing notes of this mercurial symphony. This is a lithe, focused account of Op. 43 and comes across as being in safe hands throughout; Rouvali never lingers or indulges, yet his affection for the music pervades every bar, as not a dynamic nuance or phrasal subtlety is lost. It was a good idea, too, to pair that moody, dynamic work with the generally lighter, more lyrical incidental music for Adolf Paul’s play King Christian II, thereby achieving a neatly devised programme whose balance is complemented by first-rate sound and truly virtuosic playing from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

Some conductors domesticate and “folksify” Sibelius too much for my taste as if he were Grieg but his music needs to sound wild and rhapsodic and the scurrying strings and fluttering woodwind create an atmosphere of tension and expectation from the outset; particularly noticeable is Rouvali’s use of shaded dynamics and rubato; I don’t think I have heard more vital, telling conducting of Sibelius since the heydays of Karajan and Ormandy. Fortissimo climaxes such as that at 9:22 just before the conclusion of the first movement are given full rein. The ominous timpani and pizzicato figure over bassoon mutterings in the opening of the Andante soon develops into a frenzied cry before subsiding into a more lyrical, ruminative mood, then once again Rouvali cranks up the tension; he manages all the transitions of mood and pace with real aplomb, giving the brass its rein in the central section, then building inexorably to the movement’s grand, gloomy close. The Scherzo is relentless, melding triumphantly into the big D major theme, then the music meanders teasingly before its gradual re-emergence and majestic progress to a resolution bathed in sunset glow. The playing of the Gothenburg orchestra is as sonorous as any of the “big names” orchestras.

After such riches, the gentle, lilting melodiousness of the suite comes almost as a shock, but you could not ask for more persuasive advocacy of this youthful, richly orchestrated and somewhat neglected music. The triple-time tune of the Nocturne has a Mediterranean warmth enhanced by a “castanets” effect but tempered by a typically Sibelian melancholy reminiscent of Valse triste. The Elegie is similarly sumptuous yet wistful; no cool, Nordic detachment here – what lovely music this is. A chuckling Musette is succeeded by a slightly less inspired Serenade and the suite concludes with the propulsive, “moto perpetuo” Ballade, played here with verve and vigour.

It seems to me that Rouvali judges everything right in these exemplary performances. This is masterly Sibelius, alternately refined and red-blooded, and augurs promisingly for Rouvali’s tenure as principal conductor of the Philharmonia; I shall watch out for both his concerts and recordings.

Ralph Moore

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