Sibelius: Symphonies 2 & 7 (SACD review)

Thomas Sondergard, BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Linn Records CKD 462.

If the number of releases in the CD catalogue is any indication, Sibelius's first two symphonies remain his most popular, with No. 2 taking a slight edge. This is no doubt why most conductors begin their Sibelius symphony recording cycles with one of the first two works, which is what Maestro Thomas Sondergard and his BBC National Orchestra of Wales do here, giving the Second a fairly lively, and welcome, reading. With room left over, the little Seventh Symphony is also a welcome delight.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and 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 from the music. The piece begins in a generally sunny style, though, then builds to a powerful a climax, with a flock of heroic fanfares thrown in for good measure.

Sondergard takes all four movements more quickly than do the conductors on any of the half dozen recordings I had on hand for comparison, yet his tempi are not at all breathless. Indeed, his handling of the faster sections of the first movement is fleet and agile, the change-ups smooth and entirely natural. When he pauses momentarily, when he increases the volume, when he goes into a hushed whisper, or whatever, it is with purpose; and that purpose always seems to be in the service of the music. With evenly tuned transitions from warm to cool and back, Sondergard's interpretation places the first movement among the best you will find.

The second movement Sibelius marked as an Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow conductors more personal expression. The movement begins with a distant drumroll, followed by a pizzicato section for cellos and basses. Under Sondergard this slow movement is appropriately somber, yet he imbues the music with a degree of comfortable affection, too, so it's not entirely melancholy. And again, Sondergard ensures that when he reaches the intense middle section, it doesn't appear to be coming out of nowhere but is intrinsic to the rest of the music.

Sibelius makes the third movement a scherzo, one that provides a dazzling display of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme. The whole thing should bounce around from an admirable liveliness to a more pastoral theme, then a stormy midsection, and a tranquil conclusion. This fast movement is sort of the opposite in structure of the preceding movement: instead of two slow sections enclosing a fast one, we get two fast sections surrounding a slow one. Sondergard generates a good deal of enthusiasm throughout this segment, keeping both the orchestra and the audience on their toes.

In closing, the final movement bursts forth in explosive radiance--both thrilling and patriotic. When the third movement glides directly into the fourth, Sondergard might have increased the horsepower just a bit more, highlighting the heroics. Instead, he is content to let the music speak effortlessly for itself, and perhaps he was right in doing so. He makes a rather eloquent statement by eschewing a certain degree of exaggeration. In the final analysis, Sondergard's treatment of Sibelius's Second Symphony is one of the best (and best sounding) you'll find.

Completed in 1924 the Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105, was Sibelius's final published symphony. It is notable for being in a single, relatively brief movement. For its first performance, he called it Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, a "symphonic fantasy." It was only a year later, when he actually published it, that he decided he would simply call it his Symphony No. 7. Whatever, the composer said he wanted to express in it a "joy of life and vitality with appassionato sections." To that extent, Sondergard takes him at his word.

One movement or not, the music flows structurally as a symphony might, just with more seamless continuity and cogency. Sondergard's rendering of it is, frankly, gorgeous, one of the most brilliant, moving performances I've heard. As with the previous work, the conductor fashions it all of a piece, with nothing that doesn't perfectly belong. And throughout all of this music, the orchestra adds a rich, polished luster to the proceedings. It's quite becoming.

Producer and engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the symphonies in stereo and multichannel at BBC Hoddinot Hall, Ckardiff, UK in March 2014. Linn Records released the hybrid SACD for both SACD stereo and multichannel and regular CD stereo playback. I listened to the SACD two-channel stereo layer.

The sound has a nice airy quality, with a lifelike dimensionality about it. You can hear the orchestra not only from side to side in a realistic spread but front to back as though actually sitting in the audience in a concert hall. This is typical, though, of Linn Records, who usually do their utmost to make listeners feel as though the event were live and the ensemble were actually there in front of you. Dynamics, frequency response, impact, and overall clarity are also quite good, with the hall itself lending a modest resonance to the occasion.


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