Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 2 & 5
There are already enough Sibelius symphonic cycles to make comparing them a nightmare. But expectations could hardly be higher for Osmo Vänskä’s new offering, following his historic 2001 cycle with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. With that in mind, this first disc presents some serious surprises.
Some of the greatest differences between the two performances are to be found in their orchestral sounds. The Lahti Orchestra has a restrained, almost chamber-like texture which suited Sibelian fashions at the time. Not so the Minnesota: its sound is huge and polished with rich strings, flaring brass and mellow winds, clearly recorded in first-rate SACD surround sound. Vänskä’s conducting seems different, too. Of course, the temptation to refresh these popular symphonies must be strong.
But in the Second, Vänskä’s poetic, vividly expressive style seems to have coarsened. His speeds overall are middling, but his first-movement ritardandos and accelerandos seem more idiosyncratic than insightful. A lagging second movement is followed by an over-driven Vivacissimo. In the finale, more artificial acceleration and choppy phrasing has me reaching for alternative interpretations by Colin Davis and John Barbirolli, who capture its long-breathed flow.
The Fifth, though, is another matter: fairly speedy, but well-paced and imaginatively phrased. The first movement’s hollowed-out string passages beneath upfront woodwind make for typically atmospheric Vänskä, while the concluding accelerations are obvious but impressive. The Second’s pizzicato ‘rain on leaves’ opening is beautifully played, establishing the movement’s meditative atmosphere. The Allegro’s speed doesn’t disturb the great pendulum rhythm or the spacious final hammerblows.
Enjoyable, therefore, but not as exceptional as you might hope.
Michael Scott Rohan