Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Finlandia, Op. 26 [8.41]
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 [16.47]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901/02) [44.50]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 12/13 November 2015 Herkulessaal (Sym No. 2); 15/16 October 2015 Philharmonie (Finlandia, Karelia Suite) Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900144 [70.18]

On this new BR Klassik Sibelius album the feature work is the Symphony No. 2, an enduringly popular score both on record and in the concert hall. The widely respected conductor Jansons is no stranger to the Sibelius score and released recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1990s and live in 2005 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

In 1901, as Sibelius was writing much of his Symphony No.2, he wasn’t looking out onto wintry and majestic Finnish landscapes. Instead he was enjoying the warm climate of Italy in the coastal town of Rapallo. This must have been a difficult time emotionally for Sibelius and his wife, as they had recently lost their youngest daughter to typhoid fever and, whilst in Italy, another daughter had become dangerously ill. Sibelius conducted the première of his Symphony No. 2 in 1902 in Helsinki to a triumphant reception, as Finnish audiences identified with the patriotic spirit of the music, with the valiant score representing a cornerstone of the Finnish struggle against Russian domination. At the time of the première, composer and music critic Karl Flodin described the score as “a definitive masterpiece.” In this gripping reading of the magnificent symphony, Jansons has left out the smooth edges, substituting playing of raw-edged power, generating considerable passion. Powerful and magnificent in the opening movement, Jansons has created an undertow that has a shadowy, rather ominous character. The dark-hued writing of the slow movement Tempo andante, ma rubato has significant emotional weight with the brass fanfares at the heart of the movement shining out like beacons. I admire the sense of struggle and determination with Jansons, once again revealing an undercurrent of foreboding. Marked Vivacissimo I relish the playing of the squally Scherzo with its melancholic trio focused around the reedy oboe theme, played with deep feeling by the principal. It feels as if the window has been opened to a bucolic scene, combined with a rather melancholy calm. In the heroic Finale Jansons incisively builds up towards the exultantly positive conclusion. Striking is the big patriotic theme, sounding astonishingly full, fresh and powerfully dramatic, surely one of the most positively uplifting episodes in classical music.

Jansons and his Bavarian players excel in the Symphony No. 2 but the competition is extremely fierce. I remain a passionate advocate for both the well focused 1986 account from Paavo Berglund and Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on EMI and the engaging performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis recorded at Boston in 1976 on Decca. Of the newer recordings I admire the penetrating live 2012 account from the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder on the Hallé own label.

The album also contains two of the most admired pieces of symphonic music in the repertory standing out for their memorable patriotic themes that struck a chord with Finnish people. Sibelius completed his nationalistic tone poem Finlandia in 1899 as a protest against Russian dominance of his home country of Finland. Originally eight pieces of incidental music written in 1893 for a student play, the composer recycled three pieces to form the Karelia Suite. Splendidly controlled and executed with impeccable shape and momentum in the inspiring Finlandia and Karelia Suite Jansons’s readings draw playing of an elevated quality from the assured Bavarian players. I love the way Jansons unites the orchestra sections to reveal a compelling and stirring outpouring of what can easily be acknowledged as Finnish nationalistic fervour.

Works of such inherent memorability, both Finlandia and Karelia Suite have inspired a considerable number of recordings. The accounts I play most often are from the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis recorded in 1976/79 at Boston on Decca, the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy from 1980 Kingsway Hall and 1984 Walthamstow Town Hall, London on Decca and also the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä from 1997 at Church of the Cross, Lahti, Finland on BIS.

With regard to sound quality BR Klassik label performances are invariably excellent and these Jansons performances are no exception. Recorded live at Herkulessaal (Symphony No. 2) and Philharmonie, Munich, the engineers have provided commendably clear and well balanced sonics. There is a helpful essay too by Vera Buar.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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