Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (XRCD24 review)
Now, here's the thing: Audiophile companies that remaster older recordings usually choose classic releases that most of the record-buying public already know and adore. They rely on the customer recognizing the recording, perhaps an old favorite, and wanting to own the recording in restored, up-to-date sound. That is, after all, how audiophile restoration companies make their money. And until the present disc, that has been the operating mode for major restoration companies like Hi-Q, FIM, and HDTT. Then along comes this Hi-Q remastering of Sibelius's Second Symphony with conductor Paul Kletzki and throws that whole procedure off.
I mean, I've been reading about, talking about, listening to, evaluating, and comparing classical recordings for well over half a century, and I've never once heard mention of Kletzki's Sibelius Second. Yet here it is, remastered in all its early stereo glory. And make no mistake: This is a great performance in good sound. I can only surmise that somebody in the Hi-Q organization loved this particular recording and figured it would make a nice transfer, public recognition be hanged. Or, what do I know, maybe everybody but me knows Kletzki's Sibelius, and I'm more sheltered than I know. In any case, the recording belies its 1955 origins and offers an interpretation second to none. If you have the money for such things, it's a possible consideration.
So, who was Paul Kletzki? He was a Polish conductor and composer of the mid twentieth century (1900-1973) who was semi-famous in his day but rather overshadowed by the giants of the time like Toscanini, Stokowski, Reiner, Walter, Klemperer, Bernstein, Ormandy, Szell, and the like. I know Kletzki mainly because he conducted one of my favorite recordings of all time: the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 with Maurizio Pollini and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI). And he conducted a very exciting rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, also for EMI. In the mid Fifties he was the chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; in the late Fifties he was the conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; and by the late Sixties he was the General Music Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. For the most part, though, Kletzki ran under the radar, making only a relative handful of stereo recordings before his death. Which brings us to the fortunate circumstance of the present disc--an outstanding achievement and for many people like me a newly discovered gem.
Anyway, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and it has since become one of his most-popular works, probably his most-popular symphony in any case. The listening public quickly dubbed it his "Symphony of Independence," although no one is sure whether Sibelius really 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.
The symphony begins with a generally sunny style, building to a powerful a climax, with a flock of heroic fanfares thrown in for good measure. Remarkably, Kletzki keeps the pace moving along briskly without ever seeming rushed. Of the half dozen other versions of the Sibelius I had on hand from Barbirolli, Davis, Karajan, Monteux, and such, the conductors take just a little over ten minutes to get through the first movement. Kletzki takes just a little over nine minutes. But, as I say, the music never feels hurried. Indeed, it seems just right, with a wonderful building and release of tensions along with a sweet, free-flowing spirit. While the music may appear fragmentary, Kletzki keeps it together with a delightful balance and precision.
Sibelius marked the second movement Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow a conductor more personal expression. This second movement begins with a distant drumroll, followed by a pizzicato section for cellos and basses that never sounded so enchanting as under Kletzki. As changing the tempo seems the conductor's favorite device, this movement suits him well.
The third-movement scherzo is a dazzling display of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme. Under Kletzki it bounces around at first with an admirable liveliness before moving into its more-pastoral theme, then its stormy midsection, and its tranquil conclusion. Again, the conductor finds just the right progressions to make all of this flow smoothly together, including a seamless transition into the Finale.
Then, the Finale bursts forth in explosive radiance--thrilling and patriotic. Oddly, it is only in this final movement that I thought Kletzki could have sounded even more stately and heroic. Still, he maintains a heady gait, keeping the momentum moving always forward and the music's fervor intense. No, Kletzki's reading doesn't displace my favorite recordings with Sir John Barbirolli and the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky) and Halle Orchestra (EMI), but it's close enough that Kletzki deserves a listen.
EMI producer Walter Legge and engineers Douglas Larter and Neville Boyling made the recording in July 1955 at Kingsway Hall, London. Yes, I said 1955. That means the recording comes from the beginning of the home-stereo era and has to be one of EMI's earliest stereo efforts. Obviously, because I had never heard of the recording before, I had no original disc on hand with which to compare this one; nevertheless, I can't imagine any previous CD or LP of the recording being any better. If played at high volume there is a slight tape hiss one hears in the quietest passages; at a normal listening level, however, the background noise becomes almost unnoticeable. There is no point in the symphony, however, that the orchestra ever sounds bright, forward, hard, thin, or anything but warm and natural. It's so good, in fact, it keeps you wondering how the sound could be this good for such a vintage. With all the advancements in audio technology, you'd think there would be a night-and-day difference between contemporary sound and early stereo sound, but no, there isn't all that much. Indeed, the sound here is almost as good as many things recorded today. The sound Hi-Q (JVC XRCD24 remastered) afforded Kletzki on this disc is big, open, resonant, dimensional, and, in short, realistic. The only areas in which it comes up a tad short are in terms ultimate midrange transparency and maximum dynamics. And in the final movement the stereo image seems to shift too far to the left. Aside from that, it's remarkable sound for its age.
As always, the folks at Hi-Q provide a premium product and a premium package, a glossy, hard cardboard and plastic Digipak-type container, the booklet notes sewn book-like into the center, the disc fastened to the inside back cover. You'll find Hi-Q's products on-line from any number of vendors, but among those sites offering the best prices is Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/Sibelius-Symphony-No-2-In-D-Major-XRCD24/productinfo/HIQSXR26/
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:
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.