Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, En Saga, The Swan of Tuonela, and Valse Triste. Ole Schmidt, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks RPM 28910.

Ever since the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra began producing their own discs in their Royal Philharmonic Masterworks Audiophile Collection, they've given us some fine recordings led by some fine guest conductors. They produced the present, 2011 Sibelius release in 2007 with the late Danish conductor and composer Ole Schmidt (1928-2010). He had probably conducted Sibelius about a thousand times in his lifetime, so it's good to be able to hear this recording from him.

The album begins with the Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82, which Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) premiered in 1915 at the beginning of the First World War, revising in 1916 and again in 1919. It comprises only three movements, the revised version melding the first two movements into one. With its grand gestures, the symphony sounds like typical Sibelius, especially in its wonderful theatrics.

Schmidt takes a gentle, leisurely opening tempo, building to a vigorous "sunrise" turning point and then moving along more briskly from there. The conductor leads the music with an extraordinarily sensitive touch, the poetry and grandeur of Sibelius's music always in the fore. Schmidt continues in this vein throughout the Andante, with its continuous pizzicato notes seeming more urgent than usual. After a curiously abrupt conclusion to the slow movement, the final Allegro molto seems a virtual eruption of sound, and Schmidt isn't afraid to emphasize the contrasts. The music Sibelius called the "flight of the wild swans" makes a momentous and eloquent entrance, capping a rewarding performance of the work. While I would not give up first-choice recommendations for Colin Davis (Philips or RCA), Simon Rattle (EMI), or John Barbirolli (EMI) for this new release, it's certainly in the running.

Next on the agenda are three Sibelius tone poems, starting with En Saga, Op. 9. It's an early piece that the composer felt compelled to modify and revise over the years (1892-1901), giving us the music we know today. It doesn't really tell a story per se, yet it always reminds one of some great Nordic ballad or other. Schmidt seems to take pleasure in playing up the mythic qualities of the score, and he generates quite a lot of excitement in the process, yet with much lyric beauty. For me, this performance is the highlight of the disc, one of the best versions of the music I've heard in ages.

Next up is The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 (1893), a part of Sibelius's Four Legends, evoking an eerie setting of the bird on the lake of death between the lands of the living and the dead. Schmidt produces a few goose bumps here, and under his direction the music shimmers with a creepy yet thoroughly engaging delight.

The program concludes with the brief Valse Triste, Op. 44 (1904), a dance of death from the play "Kuolema." Schmidt never lets it slip into parody, maintaining the music's tensions and edge to a high degree.

The sonics in this 20-bit digital recording are exceptionally smooth, if a little underwhelming in terms of ultimate transparency, at times even sounding a bit too soft. Although there is a wide stereo spread, there is also a slightly flat orchestral perspective from the moderately distanced miking, in which only the percussion present any discernable depth. Fortunately, the recording also displays a strong dynamic range, a well-defined string tone, and a solid bass line, helping the music appear as grand as the music-making.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa