Despite Santtu-Matias Rouvali's youthful appearance, he was born in 1985, has been the Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra since 2017, and with the 2021-22 season will be the Principal Conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra. He is a man of obvious talents.
Here, Maestro Rouvali leads his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in what is perhaps the most popular of the seven symphonies by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). As you know, he wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 between 1899 and 1901 and premiered it in 1902. Although the public quickly dubbed it his "Symphony of Independence" (from Russia), there was 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.
The piece begins in a generally sunny style, then builds to a powerful a climax, with a flock of heroic fanfares thrown in for good measure. The composer wrote it in Italy, where he hoped to find sunshine and relaxation. The weather may have been unusually cold for that part of the country at the time, but he managed a fairly bright, sunny opening statement.
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 starts with a distant drumroll, followed by a pizzicato section for cellos and basses. Sibelius makes the third movement a scherzo, marking it Vivacissimo. It's a movement 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. Then, the final movement bursts forth in explosive radiance--both thrilling and patriotic, the movement gliding directly from the third into the fourth without interruption.
Rouvali does especially well with that volatile third movement, which leaps about from fiery to rustic to tranquil. Instead of the usual starts and stops, Rouvali shapes it into a unified whole, one that moves along without much distraction yet still keeps the listener pinned to the spot. It's quite stirring, even if his transition into the final movement could have been more exhilarating. Here, Rouvali chooses to become more serious than overtly patriotic, showing us this is more than just an athletic workout but a thoughtful and substantial interpretation.
And how does Rouvali compare to other favored conductors of mine in the work: Barbirolli (Chesky, EMI, or HDTT), Monteux (HDTT), Szell (Philips), Karajan (EMI), Kletzki (Hi-Q), C. Davis (RCA), Sondergard (Linn), or Vanska (BIS)? Rouvali is right in there and must be added to the recommended list. Maybe he loses a little something in overall nuance next to Barbirolli, but it's close when you consider what Rouvali makes up for sheer color, spark, and adrenaline.
As a coupling, Rouvali gives us the suite from Sibelius's music for the stage play King Christian II. It may not be as familiar to most listeners as the symphony, yet Rouvali gives it a hefty zest that makes it near irresistible. As I said at the outset, Rouvali is a conductor of obvious talent and one we should be hearing from for many years to come.
Producer Jens Braun and engineer Lars Nisson recorded the music at Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden in June 2019. The sound is nicely balanced top to bottom, with a mild room resonance that provides a good sense of place. Detail and definition remain clear despite the gentle hall ambience present. Left-to-right stereo spread is not overdone and appears realistic, while front-to-back perspective is impressive. The bass reaches down acceptably, too, and the highs are fairly extended. Finally, we get a modest but not overly pronounced dynamic response throughout. It's good sound reproduction for a good performance.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: