Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D; Finlandia; Romance for strings, Op. 42; Valse triste

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COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Symphony No. 2 in D; Finlandia; Romance for strings, Op. 42; Valse triste
PERFORMER: Boston SO/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: 436 566-2 DDD
These two recordings of Sibelius’s Second Symphony make an interesting subject for comparison. Both were recorded at concerts and both, sadly, suffer from what sounds like a flu-ridden audience. This is a pity since both orchestras play like a dream, and the live occasion adds a palpable feeling of immediacy.

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Levine goes for a sense of urgency and only relaxes, with magnificent results, in the finale. This is certainly not a bad approach, but in the end it lacks a certain dimension: even in this relatively early work, Sibelius’s structure needs time to breathe in order to deliver its full effect. Ashkenazy provides a stronger sense of narrative. The solo violin lines in the first movement have a vocal quality, as if a story is being told. There are a few more orchestral lapses in his performances, but he provides a reading that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. While certainly ear-catching, Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic, in a rather boomy recording, do not provide as complete an image of the work. Jan Smaczny