When I was very, very young in the early 1950’s, there were three conductors’ names I recognized: Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini, and Pierre Monteux. Stokowski because I had seen Fantasia and just thought the name sounded important; Toscanini because, well, he was Toscanini, the greatest conductor in the world for, like, forever; and Monteux because I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he had been at that time the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony for many years. So I’ve always had a special place in my heart for these musicians, and I certainly welcome Monteux’s Sibelius Second back into the audiophile catalogue.
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote seven symphonies, and of them his First and Second are probably the most popular. The thing is, there are so many great recordings available, it’s hard to have a favorite. In the Second, I think about the stereo recordings of Sir John Barbirolli (Chesky and EMI), the pair from Sir Colin Davis (Philips and RCA), plus recordings from George Szell (Philips), Herbert von Karajan (EMI), Osmo Vanska (BIS), and others. Still, it’s hard not to like Monteux’s 1958 version, too, and given its excellent sound in this HDTT remastering, I’d put it near the top of any list.
Sibelius wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43, in 1902, conducting the première the same year and revising it a year later. Although the public quickly dubbed it his “Symphony of Independence,” there is some debate as to whether the composer actually intended any symbolic significance in the piece. Be that as it may, it ends in a gloriously victorious finale that surely evokes a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.
Monteux nicely develops the opening Allegretto without undue distorting, romanticizing, or glorifying of the melodies or rhythms. There is both poetry and power here aplenty. The conductor shapes the music well, starting gently and becoming dynamic and exciting by turns, while keeping the work’s traditional Nordic roots intact. The London Symphony Orchestra play it brilliantly, the engineers capturing a remarkable clarity of tone.
In the second-movement Andante, the longest section of the symphony, Monteux manages to hold our attention for the duration, despite the somewhat repetitious introductory pizzicato pace the composer demands. Following that, again we hear a powerful statement from the orchestra, with Monteux showing only a hint of darkness in the music amidst a veritable storm of passions, after which he ends it with an appropriate calm.
The third movement is an expected Scherzo, which Sibelius marks Vivacissimo (very lively). Once more, Sibelius starts it with a repetition of notes, and once more Monteux ensures that it doesn’t just become redundant. There’s a good deal of vigor and vitality in the conductor’s reading. Then, without pause, we find ourselves into the Finale, where Monteux puts an energetic spirit into the heroic main theme, sustained beautifully until the triumphant conclusion. Monteux makes grand statements of Sibelius’s grand statements.
The disc’s coupling is Sibelius’s little Symphony No. 7, Op. 105, from 1925. Here, we find Maestro Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic doing another of their finely polished, perfectly punctuated interpretations of the symphonies. The performance is as smooth and suave as the recording quality.
Decca recorded the Symphony No. 2 at Kingsway Hall, London, in 1958, and it remains one of their best efforts of the period. The folks at HDTT have remastered the sound to excellent effect, especially on the HQCD to which I listened, the sonics very full, very open, very clean, and very rich. You’ll find good detail and transparency here without the balance being too forward, glassy, or hard (although, to be fair, there is a touch of that involved, a common quality in early Decca stereo recordings). The stereo spread is wide, with a modest sense of orchestral depth, reasonably quick transients, and good impact. Decca made the Symphony No. 7 recording in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, in 1966, where they obtained a slightly smoother overall response, with an even wider stereo spread, a bit more depth, and a tad more distanced miking. If it’s not quite as transparent as the Symphony No. 2, it makes up for it with an easy listenability.
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