SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 3 in C Major; The Swan of Tuonela; Symphony No. 7 in C Major; DEBUSSY: Nuages et Fetes – Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./ Yevgeny Mravinsky – Praga Digitals

In the music of Sibelius and Debussy, Mravinsky’s live performances extend his repute as an epic interpreter. 


SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52; The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 3; Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105; DEBUSSY: Two Nocturnes: Nuages et Fetes – Leningrad Philharmonic Orch./ Yevgeny Mravinsky – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 350 106, 70:56 (4/1/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

The discography of iconic Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravnsky (1903-1988) benefits immediately with this live Moscow performance (27 October 1963) of the Sibelius Third Symphony (1907), a work often neglected even by so-called Sibelius proponents, like Herbert von Karajan. The music remains somewhat elusive, in that Sibelius assumes a more classical posture here than in his first two symphonies, economically and energetically martial in character in its first movement, Allegro moderato. Mravinsky, true to character, injects a palpably nervous tension into the low strings and occasional trumpet and trombone perorations. The thunderous tympani roll at the coda with the “Amen” cadence proves compelling.

Without a slow movement proper, the symphony proceeds, Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto, with a stately motion in g-sharp minor. Mravinsky ushers forth a suavely animated pace, smoothly confident and infinitely sensitive to wind and string sonorities. Much in the character of a jaunty intermezzo, the music plays with various sonorous textures, winds and pizzicato strings, metrically ambiguous but beguilingly melodic. Late in the movement we hear those “Northern woods” figures that mark pieces like Tapiola. Along with renditions by Barbirolli, Kletzki, and Kondrashin, this realization by Mravinsky enjoys an elastic nostalgia thoroughly stylistic. The last movement Moderato emerges in restless figures from woodwinds and fluttering strings. Allegro, the music gains momentum, intruded upon by forest figures that Mravinsky molds with muscular clarity. What appear as fragments of the two prior movements coalesce into a brooding, Scandinavian march of persuasive power, the long notes of the brass adding to the pageant.

The long-familiar 1895 symphonic poem The Swan of Tuonela (23 February 1965) features the English horn in its stellar role against cello and strings. Lemminkainen of the Kalevela sets out to slay the sacred swan as it sings upon the river of death. Lemminkainen suffers a wound from a poisoned arrow and dies. The shimmering intensity of the work and its moody sensuality appeal to Mravinsky and his peerless ensemble, who provide the entire dark journey a dark and florid mysticism.

No less mysterious, if not mystical, Mravinsky’s two Debussy Nocturnes (26 February 1960) achieve a hazy glamour well aware that Debussy meant the pieces as grisailles or studies in gray. Again an English horn chants in the Nuages, girded by memories of a Mussorgsky song. Distant trumpet sounds intermingle over a steady pulsation in the strings and woodwinds even more haunted than haunting. Fetes has its most perverse performance from Celibidache in Berlin; Mravinsky urges its flashy, mercurial colors and motion, at once martial and virtuosic. The blare and glare of the festive scene becomes a determined procession that soon melts into the swirl of cascading images. The Leningrad snare drum and cymbals make their presence known.

The 1924 Sibelius Seventh Symphony presents us a long, seamless one-movement work, emerging from a dominant G to a C Major scale that introduces the various guises of its own development. In the form of an expansive rondo and coda, Sibelius creates what Koussevitzky describes as “the composer’s answer to Parsifal. Besides the muscular filigree common to the Sibelius persona, there are moments of exquisite chamber-music sonority, passionate and intimate. Each of the successive “movements” or tempo changes has an adumbration early in the score, so the organic unity of the work stands ordained from its inception. Mravinsky assigns his Dionysian temper to each evolution of the material with a majestic confidence the equal of which I have heard in live performance once only, under the direction (in Atlanta) of the late James de Priest. The vivacissimo section alone warrants the price of admission for the homogeneity of execution that remains the hallmark of the Mravinsky experience. For the collector of this colossal force in Russian conducting, this disc will remain an essential component of your collection.

—Gary Lemco


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