Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Recordings

Henry Purcell, Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II Vol. III: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

The Sixteen continues its exploration of Henry Purcell’s Welcome Songs for Charles II. As with Robert King’s pioneering Purcell series begun over thirty years ago for Hyperion, Harry Christophers is recording two Welcome Songs per disc.

Anima Rara: Ermonela Jaho

In February this year, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho made a highly lauded debut recital at Wigmore Hall - a concert which both celebrated Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary and honoured the career of the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), the star of verismo who created the title roles in Leoncavallo’s La bohème and Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Requiem pour les temps futurs: An AI requiem for a post-modern society

Collapsology. Or, perhaps we should use the French word ‘Collapsologie’ because this is a transdisciplinary idea pretty much advocated by a series of French theorists - and apparently, mostly French theorists. It in essence focuses on the imminent collapse of modern society and all its layers - a series of escalating crises on a global scale: environmental, economic, geopolitical, governmental; the list is extensive.

Ádám Fischer’s 1991 MahlerFest Kassel ‘Resurrection’ issued for the first time

Amongst an avalanche of new Mahler recordings appearing at the moment (Das Lied von der Erde seems to be the most favoured, with three) this 1991 Mahler Second from the 2nd Kassel MahlerFest is one of the more interesting releases.

Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

If there is one myth, it seems believed by some people today, that probably needs shattering it is that post-war recordings or performances of Wagner operas were always of exceptional quality. This 1949 Hamburg Tristan und Isolde is one of those recordings - though quite who is to blame for its many problems takes quite some unearthing.

Women's Voices: a sung celebration of six eloquent and confident voices

The voices of six women composers are celebrated by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and soprano Yunah Lee on this characteristically ambitious and valuable release by Lontano Records Ltd (Lorelt).

Rosa mystica: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir

As Paul Spicer, conductor of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, observes, the worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary is as ‘old as Christianity itself’, and programmes devoted to settings of texts which venerate the Virgin Mary are commonplace.

The Prison: Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth’s last large-scale work, written in 1930 by the then 72-year-old composer who was increasingly afflicted and depressed by her worsening deafness, was The Prison – a ‘symphony’ for soprano and bass-baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Songs by Sir Hamilton Harty: Kathryn Rudge and Christopher Glynn

‘Hamilton Harty is Irish to the core, but he is not a musical nationalist.’

After Silence: VOCES8

‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Aldous Huxley’s words have inspired VOCES8’s new disc, After Silence, a ‘double album in four chapters’ which marks the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

Beethoven's Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

A song-cycle is a narrative, a journey, not necessarily literal or linear, but one which carries performer and listener through time and across an emotional terrain. Through complement and contrast, poetry and music crystallise diverse sentiments and somehow cohere variability into an aesthetic unity.

Flax and Fire: a terrific debut recital-disc from tenor Stuart Jackson

One of the nicest things about being lucky enough to enjoy opera, music and theatre, week in week out, in London’s fringe theatres, music conservatoires, and international concert halls and opera houses, is the opportunity to encounter striking performances by young talented musicians and then watch with pleasure as they fulfil those sparks of promise.

Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players: a world premiere recording

“It’s forbidden, and where’s the art in that?”

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Recordings

Jean Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7.
03 Feb 2008

SIBELIUS: Symphonies 1-7

In tandem with the recently released set of Sir Simon Rattle’s recordings of Mahler’s symphonies on EMI Classics, the set of the complete symphonies by Jean Sibelius merits attention.

Jean Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7.

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor.

EMI Classics 50999 5 00753 2 4 [5 CDs]

$33.98  Click to buy

The affinities between the two sets of works are known, with the connection between the two composers existing in Mahler’s comment to Sibelius that a symphony must embody a world. Yet Sibelius took as his starting point the late-Romantic symphonic idiom to explore several aspects of modernism as he developed his own style within the bounds of an instrumental milieu. In performing the body of Sibelius’s symphonic works, Rattle evinces his own affinity with the music that emerges in this set of recordings made between 1984 and 1987. Several of the additional tracks in this set date from earlier sessions, notably the two cuts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Night Ride and Sunrise, op. 55, and the second performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, both made in September 1981. The relative short period during which Rattle made these recordings contributes to the sense of cohesiveness to the set, and the use of the same ensemble, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is another asset. Yet it is Rattle’s own sense of Sibelius’s style that makes this set of Sibelius’s symphonies attractive.

With the famously misunderstood Fourth Symphony, Rattle offers a solid reading of the work that makes the architecture of the score audibly apparent. A relatively short, four-movement work, The Fourth Symphony is outwardly more dissonant than the composer’s previous contributions to the genre. The manipulation of cells and motives that Sibelius used in the Second Symphony is key to the structure of the Fourth Symphony, as is the use of sparer forces that give a sense of large-scale chamber music to this score. Rattle is keen to bring out the interaction of the various motives in this work, with the varying orchestral timbres intersecting the work almost seamlessly. The limpid sonorities found in the third movement are one of the more intriguing aspects of the recording, which demonstrates the tight ensemble of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. With such a demanding score, Rattle offers a fine reading that emerges well in the particular recording in this set, and it is the effectiveness of this less-familiar Symphony that is one criterion of a cycle like this.

In leading the more familiar works by Sibelius, such as the First, Second, and Fifth Symphonies, Rattle demonstrates his command of the scores. The first movement of the First Symphony contains some subtle contrasts in tempo that convey to support the tone of the movement, and this includes both some of the slower passages as well as cascading accelerandos. In balancing the strings and brass, the recording of this work gives the impression of distance separating the two timbres which, in turn, underscores the sense of expansiveness that is part of the movement.

Such balances serve well in the first movement of the Second Symphony, in which the supporting string parts emerge clearly to create a harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment to the music. In that movement, which involves the presentation and development of various motifs before they combine into larger ideas and full themes, such accompanying figures are essential to the continuity of the music. In bringing out the secondary ideas, which may not be memorable in themselves, Rattle makes full use of the textures notated in the score to arrive at a persuasive performance.

Such attention to figuration emerges elsewhere, such as the Scherzo of the Second Symphony, in which he downplays some of the repetitive figures, without making them inaudible. This allows him to make the most of the sometimes complex textures that contrast the slower ideas that Sibelius uses in the movement. Here Rattle’s pacing again makes his interpretation distinctive, not only for allowing some breathing space around sections of the movement, but also allows various colors to emerge clearly. All in all, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra demonstrates its own sense of ensemble, with playing that responds well to Rattle’s leadership, as found in the convincingly satisfying conclusion of the Second Symphony.

Overall the quality of playing and the solid interpretations contribute to the success of this set of recordings. With works that are heard less often in the concert hall, like the Third Symphony, the reading here demonstrates the appeal that work should have, with its clearly articulated rhythms juxtaposed with soaring themes. In making the colors of the score emerge clearly Rattle offers an attractive reading of this score. The sound of some of the more intimate ensemble writings as, for example, the opening of the second movement, seems to benefit from the studio, but it also includes some depth as various timbres move in and out of prominence, as found in the score. With the third and final movement of that work, Rattle takes advantage of the rhythmic nature of the themes to allow sections to interact with each other. While some interpreters can be a little harsh in this movement, the lighter touch that Rattle exhibits contributes to the recording.

Likewise, Rattle’s accounts of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies bear consideration, since they are solid interpretations of these fine works. With the Sixth Symphony, Sibelius is more introspective than he was in the Fifth. The modal inflections and contrapuntal textures require a deft hand, and Rattle meets the challenge well. The string sonoritiesin the Sixth Symphony are essential to the work, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is impressive in making this regard. The intonation is notable for modal passages, as well as some of the impressionist-sounding passages.

In the Seventh, Sibelius’s last symphony, the composer explored the possibilities of expanding the musical content of the form further than he had previously done. Once intended to be entitled Fantasia sinfonica, as Stephen Johnson mentions in the program notes accompanying the set, the formal dimensions Sibelius conceived for this work extend the conventional architecture to create a compelling work that deserves repeated hearings. This is, perhaps, the most challenging of the works in the set, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is convincing. With echoes, Anklänge, of ideas found in earlier works, alongside ideas that are unique to the Seventh, the result is a work that moves between modernism and convention. Rattle’s conception of the score is evident in the recording, which is, perhaps, one of the more impressive ones in the set.

One of the more difficult works by Sibelius to capture in recording is the Violin Concerto. With the sometimes atmospheric scoring that he used in the work, the full sonic impact of the work is sometimes lost, even with relatively modern or, in this case, recent, recording techniques. The fine work of Rattle and Nigel Kennedy is apparent in the recording, but it does not convey the immediacy that is essential to this important twentieth-century violin concert. The playing is solid, and stands well as reissued in this set, but the recording itself does not capture the excitement that must have been present in the live performance on which it is based.

In addition to Sibelius’s seven symphonies and the Violin Concerto, this set includes several of the composer’s tone poems, specifically The Oceanides, Op. 73, Kuolema, Op. 44, and Night Ride and Sunrise, Op. 55. Yet the fifth disc – the bonus CD in this set – contains an earlier, quite atmospheric, recording of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and it gives a sense of the approach Rattle took with this work several years prior to recording the cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As a set, though the complete cycle that Rattle recorded for EMI with the City of Birmingham has much to offer those who wish to explore the music further. The consistency that arises when a conductor records a body of works with the same ensemble becomes a kind of document that listeners can use to explore each piece. Those who might know several of Sibelius’s symphonies might use the set to gain a better sense of them all from the perspective of one of the finest contemporary conductors.

Notwithstanding the merits of this set, it is difficult to avoid comparisons with other fine recordings of individual works and cycles of Sibelius’s symphonies. The discography includes a number of fine performances, including those of Thomas Beacham, Colin Davis, and others. While some critics may have strong fields about specific sets, this release of Rattle’s fine recordings makes his interpretations accessible for comparison and, most importantly, enjoyment. As with other great symphonists, Sibelius’s work withstands multiple interpretations, which bring out various aspects of the works.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):