Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; Tapiola; Swan of Tuonela

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Tapiola;
Swan of Tuonela
PERFORMER: Royal Stockholm PO/Vladimir Ashkenazy


When some years back I surveyed all 42 of the available Sibelius Seconds, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s live Boston Symphony recording (on Decca, currently unavailable) fell among my top five recommendations. It was something of a wild card, though; an individual reading not to everyone’s taste, and much the same could be said of this latest instalment in his new SACD cycle. The surround-sound recording is as stunning as earlier instalments – airy, spacious, finely detailed and realistic, although the Stockholm Konserthus sounds rather too reverberantly empty. Ashkenazy’s timings are very close to his Boston performance, distinctly slow and measured, with an air of reflective poetry and Slavic warmth – not inappropriate for a work partly conceived in Rapallo, perhaps, but rather underplaying Sibelius’s characteristic energy. Ashkenazy opens the bright first movement gently, but builds quite convincingly to the great brass passages. The more sprawling second movement, with its eerie dream of Don Juan, lags somewhat. The scherzo, by contrast, scurries rather too obviously at the beginning, making the transition to the folksy oboe-themed pastorale (beautifully played) rather brusque and unnatural. It’s in the fourth movement’s airy Tchaikovskian sweep that Askhenazy really carries us away, gathering momentum for the hymnlike close and soaring finale. Tapiola is somewhat soft‑centred but nonetheless atmospheric, the Swan is exceptionally eloquent and chilling. Altogether this is a refreshing alternative to more granitic interpretations – and a sonic treat for SACD listeners, though they may want to wait for the remastering of Colin Davis’s fine Boston recording by Pentatone. Michael Scott Rohan