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CD Review

Jean Sibelius

  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 43 (1901)*
  • "Finlandia" Op. 26 (1899)
Ljubljana Symphony Orchestra/Anton Nanut & *Marko Munih
Stradivari Classics 6041 DDD 1991 55:16
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The Stradivari label has seen fit to record two of Sibelius' most well-known compositions, the rousingly patriotic Finlandia and the much more substantial Second Symphony. This is an exciting prospect; but do the Yugoslav musicians know how to "do" Sibelius?

As our Finnish friend Petri Lehto has told us, getting Sibelius right is a tricky thing, especially for non-Finns. "You simply can't perform the music properly without an understanding of and sympathy for the Finnish mentality", Petri tells me. At any rate, Sibelius was not Tchaikovsky, nor was he Wagner or Debussy. Critical to any performance of these works are the orchestral attacks (including crescendos and diminuendos), section balances and sonorities – all which create a musical accent uniquely this composer's own.

Having made the point, I must say that on the surface Nanut and his orchestra give a pretty good account of themselves. Clarity of line is one characteristic of their performance of the Symphony. The opening allegro offers some fine wind playing, but is a little superficial. Much detail is revealed in the following movement, although the expression of the trumpet here is weak (I found the trumpet playing overall not to my liking; aside from lacking the correct 'accent' for the music, the tone was rather nasally and vibrato-laden).

"Vivacissimo" is the heading for the third movement, and here Nanut sounds more like an accomplished conductor of German music than of Finnish music. Everything is a bit rushed, too, and shrill. The incredibly original musical crescendo which Sibelius employs to bridge the third and fourth movements always emerges as one of music's most thrilling affirmations. There is a yearning, an intensity, an almost unbearable passion burned into the finale which only the worst performance will fail to impress upon the listener.

In Nanut's hands, the color is there but the ardor is lacking, which I attribute to the conductor not grasping sufficiently the Sibelian dialect. The result is a Sibelius Second which sounds quite fresh, but ultimately unauthentic. The strengths and weakness of Nanut's reading of the Symphony are essentially mirrored in the Marko Munih -directed Finlandia.

Performances aside, the sound on this budget-priced disc is impressive. With the exceptions of a somewhat tubby lower register and lack of ample "air" around the instruments, the quality of the recorded sound can't be faulted. In fact, at this price level, there is absolutely no competition for this CD. (Since it is so reasonably priced, I don't even mind that the total disc time fails to reach the 60 minute mark).

Therefore, it can be recommended (with the warnings noted) to those seeking a DDD Sibelius Second at very low cost. For something more closely approaching the genuine article, there is Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra on London. Ashkenazy is one 'outsider' who seems to get Sibelius right. His performances on London 430737 of the Second Symphony, Finlandia and Karelia are among the best ever recorded. And London has made this available as a midpriced 'Jubilee' series disc.

Copyright © 1996, Peter S. Murano