Symphonies Nos 2 & 4
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
Rubicon RCD 1072 87:04 mins
In great works so multifariously recorded as these, the pretext for yet further interpretations can only be that the performers feel they have something new to say about them. It seems that Owain Arwel Hughes’s main idea is to take things rather steadily – though never so slowly as such extremists as Bernstein or Leif Segerstam. In Symphony No. 4’s dark, fragmentary slow movement, his careful pacing enables a real tension to accumulate as the players of the Royal Philharmonic feel their way from one fraught phrase to another. Yet that same carefulness robs the finale of much of its wonted urgency and climactic struggle – a disappointment underlined by Hughes’s resort to that dubious tradition – unsupported by Sibelius’s score – of drastically slowing down the bleak final pages.
Again, the relatively ample unfolding of the Allegretto opening of Symphony No. 2 goes nicely, but then Hugues only marginally modifies his beat throughout the rest of the first movement, where Sibelius asks for many fluctuations and speed-ups. The cumulative development section not only lacks excitement but, at times, sounds almost like a cautious first read-through, while the full, but slightly confusing acoustic of St John’s Smith Square suggests it may not be the easiest venue in which to record a full orchestra. These are honest, straightforward accounts, but there are many more vital, characteristic and insightful recordings in the catalogue.