Yoel Levi's work in Sibelius was called "bloodless" on these pages way back in 1996 when ClassicalNet and yours truly were both very young. Time has shown that assessment to be incorrect. The present set, released in 2009, includes the previously reviewed Swan from Atlanta, but adds the Cleveland Finlandia to the symphonies to fill out the set. Levi's recordings have all worn well, and this twofer collects his very earliest work on disc. It's all very distinguished, and like the other selections in Telarc's well-planned, short-lived, and largely ignored "Everybody's…" series, provides an excellent introduction to the composer in question.
There's not really any other set on the market that introduces to Sibelius this well. EMI's 20th century twofer probably comes the closest, but those always feel like a showcase for that companies storied past and sometimes lead to strange selections. The present set wisely focuses on one conductor's vision for a great composer, captured in stellar sound. Like Dohnányi's Beethoven, it's indisputably excellent but never got much attention. Levi works very well with both orchestras, although his work in Atlanta is easily more notable and any Sibelius from Cleveland faces George Szell directly.
That said, Levi doesn't try to outdo anybody. In both Finlandia and the Second Symphony, he simply lets his players play. Captured in far better sound than anything Szell ever got from Columbia, the first movement is wonderfully played with no sense of excess. Levi clearly wants to move the piece forward, but nothing feels rushed. One of Telarc's great accomplishments early on was the work closely with the Cleveland Orchestra. Levi made only two albums with these players, this Sibelius Two and a highly regarded Prokofiev disc. So we are lucky to have this, especially because the following three movements are just as excellent. Levi understands the strengths of his players, and maintains the marvelous sectional balance that they were known for. Certainly nothing is bloodless, either here or in the Finlandia that was the original album mate. As mentioned, the disc also includes the Atlanta reading of The Swan of Tuonela. I find it excellent, with especially distinguished string playing and solo work. Patrick McFarland's English horn solo on a bed of shimmering strings has to be heard to be believed. Gorgeous stuff, this.
Levi was able to exercise more of his personal vision in Atlanta, and it's here that disc two takes us. Credit Telarc's programmers for choosing the symphonies over the tone poems, because this First and Fifth are really good. Right away, the natural sound of the orchestra captivates, as does the same marvelous string playing that so pleased me in the Swan. Incredibly rounded brass playing and exceptional winds complete the picture. Levi was a few years older when these two sessions were taped, and his increased confidence and pleasure in having his own players shines in every bar. Maybe these aren't all essential Sibelius performances, but they are a great memento to a fine conductor and his orchestras. Great sound and cool packaging really do make this Sibelius for everybody.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman