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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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.

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa