Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, King Christian II (suite). Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Alpha-Classics ALPHA 574.

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.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali
So how does Maestro Rouvali handle all this? About the way he's pictured on the album's cover, giving it his best Mick Jagger impression. Although things seem a little quicker throughout than from most other conductors, he never appears too rushed. Everything unfolds with a smooth, flowing gait, rising to electrified climaxes in some places and remaining on solidly bucolic ground at others. From its sweet, folksy opening to its riveting conclusion, the symphony under Rouvali takes on a cohesive structure that binds all four movements together more so we usually hear.

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.

JJP

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

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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 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.
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