Jan Sibelius Symphony No. 2

{Ed Note:  This article is another excellent contribution from DlphcOracl.}

Jan Sibelius Symphony No. 2
Conductor: George Szell
Orchestra: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (RCOA)
 

The Sibelius symphony no. 2 is, by far, the most popular of his seven symphonies and it has been adopted as the unofficial national anthem in Finland.  There are at least a dozen CD recordings, many by top-flight Scandinavian conductors and orchestras yet, ironically, the best recordings are by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Colin Davis, and my personal choice of George Szell.  This was recorded sometime in the 1960’s, I believe, and initially it seemed like an odd pairing of conductor and orchestra.  At that time, Szell was principal conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and under his baton it was the finest orchestra in the U.S.  It was especially known for its precision and many considered it the finest Mozart and Haydn orchestra in the world at that time. The Philips label that he recorded under paired him with the RCOA and it was an inspired choice. He recorded several symphonies with the RCOA for Philips and about a decade ago they released a CD of this recording as part of their “Commemorative 50 Series” paired with a superb performance of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, also with the RCOA.

Szell’s recording of the Sibelius No. 2 avoids the false romantic excesses and melodrama of many other recordings and he plays it in a no-nonsense manner, focusing on clarity and maintenance of proper tempo.  It has an icy, Nordic feel and three factors contribute to making this a special performance. First, the Concertgebouw recital hall has some of the finest acoustics in the world. Second, the RCOA and the Berlin Philharmonic were the finest orchestras in the world at that time and they play superbly for Szell.  Third, and most important, the RCOA had marvelous brass and woodwind sections with a distinctive sound perfectly suited for Sibelius; a burnished sound that gives the No. 2 a haunting, other-worldly quality. Throw in one of the finest recordings of Beethoven’s 5th ever committed to disc and you have a ‘desert island’ CD.

The Philips CD with this pairing may be available of amazon.com and it is worth seeking out.  If you are unfamiliar with the Sibelius symphony no. 2 you are in for a treat.

Here is a live recording of George Szell conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam from 1964 and it is uploaded in four installments.  I am near-certain that the Philips recording is a studio recording — it must have been done very shortly after Szell gave the live concert with the RCOA and it is otherwise identical with the same brisk, no-nonsense pacing, superb detail, and the great burnished sound of the RCOA brasses and woodwind sections.

For comparison purposes, listen to the first few minutes of the YouTube upload of Leonard Bernstein conducting this with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the legendary Musikverein (world’s finest acoustics).  Although the orchestral playing and sound quality are superb, Bernstein dawdles and stretches out the tempo, robbing this music of its thrust, vitality and rugged quality.   In Bernstein’s hands it sounds like Brahms, not a Nordic masterpiece.

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