Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, The Oceanides; Pohjola’s Daughter. Sir Mark Elder, Halle Orchestra. Halle Concerts Society CD HLL 7516.

Is it the “Halle Orchestra,” “The Halle,” or simply “Halle” these days? I’m never sure. The disc’s accompanying booklet and case list the orchestra only as “Halle.” Nothing more. Like Cher. Or Liberace. I dunno. In any case, it’s the oldest orchestra in the U.K. and the fourth-oldest in the world, founded by pianist and conductor Charles Halle in 1857. It makes its home in Manchester, England, playing under its current Music Director since 2000, Sir Mark Elder. Maestro Elder rather quickly endeared himself not only to me but to the world with his sensitive, engaging musical interpretations. This is saying a lot considering that the Halle has worked under such distinguished conductors as Hans Richter, Sir Hamilton Harty, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir John Barbirolli, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, James Laughran, Kent Nagano, and others. On the present disc, Maestro Elder gives us the Second Symphony and a couple of tone poems by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).

The disc opens with the two tone poems, first Pohjola's Daughter and then The Oceanides. One can tell from the outset that Elder is going for a lighter, brighter mood than one usually hears in these pieces. Given the dark nature of the former work and the broad proportions of the latter, Elder takes them both in a more sprightly vein than I thought I would like. Still, I found them pleasingly listenable even without the substance I had been expecting. While the seemingly cheerful tone may not be entirely appropriate, it adds an unanticipated dimension to the works.

Sibelius wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and it has subsequently become one of the man’s most-popular pieces, perhaps the most-popular of all judging by the number of recordings you’ll find of it. Although the public quickly dubbed it his “Symphony of Independence,” no one’s sure whether the composer actually intended any symbolic significance in the piece. Even so, it ends in a gloriously victorious finale that surely draws out a feeling of freedom and self-reliance in the music.

Like the two tone poems that precede it on the disc, the Second Symphony, too, seems somewhat lightweight under Maestro Elder's direction. Certainly, it begins well, tripping daintily along as it should in a most sunny style. But it never seems to build to as powerful a climax as it should. Nevertheless, it's hard to resist those heroic fanfares Sibelius keeps throwing at us.

The composer marked the second movement an Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow the conductor more personal expression. Yet I didn't hear it in the music; it all seemed of a piece to me, with not much quickening or slackening of the pace. Well, I shouldn't complain: The orchestra plays convincingly, if not with the power or richness of a Berlin or London Philharmonic; and Elder's affection for the music appears evident in every note.

In fact, Elder's handling of the third-movement Scherzo is the highlight of the program. It's an appropriately dazzling display of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme that works beautifully.

The only serious disappoint I had was with the Finale. It should be explosively radiant, thrilling, and patriotic. Again, I didn't hear it. It seemed much too mild-mannered to me, much too gracefully lyrical where it should have been dramatically propulsive. Of the five other recordings I had on hand, Elder's was by far the longest and least intense. Maybe he was trying his best to be different and not give us a stereotypical reading of the music as nationalistic propaganda. If so, I commend his initiative, even if I feel he misplaced it. Please, give me the thrills; it's more fun.

So, as I say, the problem for Elder’s recording is that there is already such heady competition in the Symphony, it rather makes the present disc irrelevant. Sir John Barbirolli gave us a definitive Second with the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky Gold) and another with this very orchestra (EMI); HDTT recently remastered Pierre Monteux’s LSO account; George Szell’s Concertgebouw rendering still sounds attractive (Philips); Herbert von Karajan and his Berlin Philharmonic produce greater passion (EMI); Colin Davis and the LSO show more authority (RCA); and Osmo Vanska and the Lahti Symphony seem more dynamic (BIS). Against such formidable rivals, Elder’s disc, as good as parts of it are, doesn’t quite stack up.

These days the Halle Orchestra release their recordings under their own label. They made Pohjola’s Daughter in 2007 at the Bridgewater Hall, The Oceanides in 2006 at BBC Studio 7, Manchester, and the Symphony No. 2 live in 2012 at the Bridgewater Hall. Some people love the sound and spontaneity of a live recording; I don’t. To my ears, live recordings often don’t sound as good as those made in a studio or an unattended hall, and live recordings often introduce audience distractions. Here, if you listen to the disc, you’ll see what I mean.

The sound in the non-live recordings of the tone poems is fairly close but warmly natural and detailed, with no trace of hardness or edge. The brass sound especially realistic, there is a good feeling of depth to the image, and one hears a pleasant ambient bloom throughout. The sound in the live recording of the Symphony is closer still and slightly harder and raspier. It makes the definition stand out, true, but at the expense of losing a degree of smoothness. On the positive side, the audience remain very well behaved during the performance, so you won't hear much in the way of shuffling feet, rustling paper, coughing, or wheezing. On the negative side, however, you will hear a burst of unfortunate applause at the end.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa