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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 [13:13]
The Oceanides, Op. 73* [10:23]
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43** [46:44]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 4 February 2007, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; *2 August 2006, BBC Studio 7, Manchester; ** in concert 19-20 September 2012, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.
HALLÉ CD HLL 7526 [70:59]


 
This, I believe, is the second Sibelius disc to come from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. The first one, which I missed, coupled the First and Third Symphonies. I see from Michael Greenhalgh’s review that the First Symphony came from the same sessions that produced the present account of The Oceanides.
 
No British orchestra is better qualified than the Hallé when it comes to the Second Symphony because it was they, under Hans Richter, who gave its first UK performance back in 1905. Over a century later the present-day orchestra and their current chief conductor give a fine account here. I wondered if the performance was a little understated at first but, on reflection, this is deceptive. From 5:20 the turbulence in the music is well conveyed and it’s clear that Elder has a firm grip on the score, building to a climax (7:20 -7:35) in which the craggy grandeur of the brass is impressive.
 
The second movement is, for me, the core of the work. The opening here has a legendary feel, the bassoons and pizzicato low strings producing a suitably grainy sound. Elder seems fully in tune with the true essence of the music and his orchestra plays it very well indeed. The music glows darkly with evident undercurrents and the climax (8:21 – 9:35) is very imposing. This is a fine, searching reading. There’s excellent drive in the scherzo though I’m just a little bit thoughtful about the trio, which is taken pretty expansively. The performance of the finale is exciting. Elder blends grandeur and dynamism expertly, and the last few minutes, as he builds up to the majestic conclusion, are very impressive. The peroration is very broadly conceived and while there’s no denying its majesty, I wonder if this treatment might work better live in the concert hall than repeatedly on disc. However, the spirit of the music is most definitely conveyed both here and throughout the symphony. Leaving aside my minor caveats about aspects of the last two movements – caveats which others may not share – this is a very impressive reading.
 
The two tone poems are presented in studio recordings. Pohjola’s Daughter is a fine piece though I was interested to read in Stephen Johnson’s characteristically informative notes that Sibelius didn’t decide on the story-line until composition of the music was under way. The present performance starts well with a good, brooding opening and the subsequent faster music has plenty of drive. Two things particularly impress me about this performance. One is how well Elder realises the composer’s intentions as regards the often-spare textures. The other is the sheer excitement of the fiery passages in which the Hallé brass play with no little potency, their music underpinned by driving string figurations. Stephen Johnson describes the piece as “a compact, gripping experience” and that’s what Sir Mark and his fine orchestra makes it. The hushed, mysterious ending is very well done; the music seems to vanish into thin air.
 
They’re no less successful with The Oceanides. This isn’t heard as often as it should be. Mind you, I find it an elusive piece, both musically and intellectually. There’s some admirable flute playing in the opening pages of this performance, very suggestive of carolling seabirds. Indeed, throughout the performance the Hallé woodwinds play very well – the clarinets are on fine form. Elder and his players distil a fine atmosphere. The climax (7:30 – 9:00) is as implacable as anything in Tapiola and hereabouts the swirling harp part is a stroke of genius on the part of the composer, brilliantly suggesting eddying currents.
 
So, there are three admirable Sibelius performances here. The orchestral playing throughout matches the very high standards that we’ve come to expect from this team. The recording is good. The sound in The Oceanides is obviously from a different acoustic and the orchestra is placed a little more closely than is the case for the Bridgewater Hall recordings. The symphony was set down in the presence of an audience and they’re commendably quiet; there is applause at the end.
 
This is another excellent addition to the Elder/Hallé discography. I hope that the remaining Sibelius symphonies will follow and I must catch up with the previous instalment.
 
John Quinn
 

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