Rosbaud conducts Sibelius – Symphonies 2, 4, & 5 – SWR

by | Oct 28, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

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Impressive and potent Sibelius from the German master and his Baden-Baden ensemble

Rosbaud conducts SIBELIUS = Symphonies 2, 4, & 5; 3 Songs (complete listing below)  Kim Borg, bass/ Southwest German-Radio Orchestra, Baden-Baden/Hans Rosbaud – SWR CLASSIC SWR19105CD (2021) [2 CDs 50:38; 70:04] [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Those familiar with the recorded legacy of German maestro Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962) are conversant with his idiomatic Sibelius on Deutsche Grammophone with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1954 and 1957 and issued in a 5-CD set (477 089-2), 2004. Many connoisseurs of orchestral conducting consider Rosbaud among the major talents of the middle 20th Century, having made Baden-Baden a haven for modern composition, while still maintaining a firm grip on the Romantic tradition; and, in in Aix-en-Provence, facilitating operatic repertory that ranged from Baroque to modern masterpieces. American conductor Richard Kapp (1936-2006), during our shared sessions at WQXR’s “First Hearing,” would simultaneously boast of and lament the sheer volume of his mentor, Rosbaud’s performances on tape – a body of music that far exceeded what commercial record companies had marketed – that languished in neglect. The SWR Classics label has systematically remedied much of the Rosbaud-legacy situation, and the present series of studio performances certify Rosbaud’s sympathies for the Sibelius style.

The set opens with three Sibelius songs performed in Swedish with basso Kim Borg (1919-2000) in February 1957, beginning with Shakespeare’s “Come Away, Death!” from Twelfth Night in the arrangement by conductor Ivar Hellman in 1909. This dark sentiment is followed by lighter fare, “The Diamond on the March Snow,” also in a Hellman orchestration from 1932. Borg’s lyric capacities shine here, just as his deep resonance marked the first song. The last of the triptych, “Illalle,” (“Evening”), vibrates with pantheistic energy, and Borg and Rosbaud achieve a resonant glow we would likely associate with the best of another Swedish vocalist, Jussi Bjoerling.

Rosbaud then addresses the ever-popular Symphony No. 2 in D Major (1902), among the more heroic of the Sibelius landscapes. Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to codify Sibelius’ adjustments to sonata-form in the first movement, Allegretto, but it proves more rewarding to witness Rosbaud’s essentially literalist approach, that yet allows some subjective alterations of his own. Some might compare the forward motion of the movement favorably with Toscanini’s approach, which eschews the pure monumentality that Kajanus and Koussevitzky cultivate. The melodic line and its accompanying, dark strands in the low strings enjoys a flexible sense of tempo, and the Baden-Baden brass and woodwinds need not defer to their fellows’ work in New York, Boston or London. The last page of the movement projects a resolve quite in keeping with the composer’s “Northern” sensibility. The long pizzicato string line that opens the second movement, Tempo andante, ma rubato, sets us, with the woodwinds, a kind of funereal mood in the Aeolian mode that assumes an athletic grandeur. Suddenly, the music blooms into bucolic reverie, even in spite of the occasional, declamatory outburst. The third movement, Vivacissimo, always proves to be a kind of orchestral toccata for strings, brass, and timpani. Rosbaud drives hard – twice- to the seductive trio announced in the oboe, only to return spasmodically to the manic drive of the scherzo. The transition to the last movement fanfares having been accomplished, Rosbaud can then allow the Sibelius hymn of the last movement to emerge without embarrassment or undue ostentation. The noble impulse that Rosbaud builds proceeds much in the manner of Tchaikovsky, assertive and resolved but refined by a natural sweetness of expression. Rosbaud has a tendency to speed in his Sibelius, and the second half of the last movement plays like a rush to a long-desired apotheosis, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” 

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

The etiology of Sibelius’ 1915 Fifth Symphony is common parlance among devotees: the Finnish government had declared Sibelius’ birthday a national holiday and invited the composer to respond with a celebratory score. Sibelius had taken note of a flight of swans, what he described as “a gleaming silver ribbon,” as an emblem for the musical motif he sought for this organic work, a kind of rebirth for his own spirit, which had been assaulted both by world events, WW I, and a bout with a cancerous tumor of the throat. The Tempo molto moderato proceeds as “a series of rivulets in a flowing stream,” as each of the orchestral choirs, in stretto, layers a tapestry of ascending, bucolic power. Rosbaud’s reading (December 5, 1955) captures the immediacy of the visionary moment, especially in the Baden-Baden brass, who punctuate the occasion over tremolo strings and rolling timpani. The tension becomes almost unbearable, but the next period, Largamente, breaks the woodwind motif into fragments, only to coalesce once more with resounding authority. The suggestion of a grand arch arises, illuminated by a sense of resplendent power. With the transition into Allegro moderato, the mood becomes ambiguous but lighter, more playfully gracious despite contrapuntal murmurs from the bass strings and timpani. The coda assumes a frenetic momentum, like river rapids, sweeping us to an abrupt conclusion. Though I still prefer the Celibidache rendition with the Swedish Radio Symphony for raw power, this reading has sweep and conviction. The second movement Andante mosso, quasi allegretto in Rosbaud’s quick, staccato flutes and pizzicato strings may have its gently martial affect in common with the middle movement of Symphony No. 3, but Sibelius links this variation movement directly to his last movement, Allegro molto – which combines, even compresses, scherzo and finale – in order to bring his “Swan Theme” to a grand apotheosis. The hearty resonance Rosbaud and his forces elicit in the Allegro molto section deserves repeated audition, and Rosbaud’s momentum from the Largamente assai to the coda carries us even to those last chords, which otherwise seem detached, as an afterthought. Sibelius devotees will likely seek this performance out often. 

Rosbaud takes particular care in his realization of the complex, gripping, yet enigmatic Symphony No. 4 by Sibelius of 1911, a work conductors like Toscanini, Beecham, Stokowski, Barbirolli, and Ehrling worked hard to clarify. Besides his personal, health-related travails, Sibelius felt the global tremors of the First World War, and this symphony seems rife with the angst of a fallen civilization. Sibelius invokes the musical tritone (C-F#) to express his anxiety with the times, the cellos, basses, and bassoons instructed to produce a sound “as harsh as fate.” A sense of imminent threat pervades the first movement, Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio, which the Baden-Baden orchestra projects with alternately grim harmonies – in C# and F# in clarinet, bassoon, cellos, and double basses – from a densely scored series of grumbles and retreats. Even so, Rosbaud elicits a sense of transcendent mystery inspired, as the story goes, by Sibelius’ visit to Koli, the storm-tossed Finnish mountain of Karelia. The mountain streams, especially of Imatra, provided the composer a source for nature-inspired counterpoints. The resonance of the Baden-Baden viola choir warrants the price of admission. Thematic contrast and progressive variation define the internal structure and evolution of this labyrinthine work. The harmony softens superficially in the second movement, Allegro molto vivace, a waltz-scherzo set in the Lydian mode of the tritone (F-B). The storm rumblings, however, continue to infect the playfulness with a dark spirit. The third movement Il tempo largo wishes to sing, but it reveals its melody (in C# Minor) only grudgingly, with the strings in fifths and the cello line’s taking the tune in ninths. The emotional ambiguity – even fragility – extends into the stormy thrusts of the last movement, Allegro, with the tritone’s being stretched a perfect fifth, E-flat above A. All attempts to make an idyll of this experience consistently shatter, and the music ends in a desolate A Minor. Sibelius grew accustomed to quote Strindberg when speaking of this symphony, “It is misery to be human,” a sentiment close both to Aeschylus and the legendary Silenus. Fervently recommended. 

–Gary Lemco

Rosbaud conducts SIBELIUS =
Komm herbet, Tod, Op. 60/1
Der Diamant auf dem Märzschnee, Op. 36/6; Illalle, Op. 17/6
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43
Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

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Rosbaud Conducts Sibelius, Album Cover

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