SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63; Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82; The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 2; Finlandia, Op. 26 – Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy – Pristine Audio

by | Aug 17, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63; Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82; The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 2; Finlandia, Op. 26 – Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy

Pristine Audio PASC177, 77:41 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

At the time Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) recorded the Sibelius symphonies Four and Five (1954), he had been Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for eighteen years and had honed the “Stokowski sound” into something of his own, attuned to his sense of timbral weights and balances. The recording from CBS was issued (ML 5045) as a commemoration of the composer’s 90th birthday. The Fourth Symphony (1911)–which Stokowski had recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1932–gleaned most of the attention, if only because its musical means–exploiting the tritone group established over a unison C–infiltrates much of the music’s unnerving modal progress. The first movement adumbrates the collisions already besetting the political world at the time; and sheer chaos erupts in the latter part of the first movement, when major and minor thirds, clashes between A Minor and E-flat Major, tear the coda apart, bereft of anything like a melody.

Ormandy’s cello section states the mordant grinding emotional ethos of the piece in broad terms, the double basses and bassoons filling out the wringing tissue. The trumpets, tympani, thumping strings, and glockenspiel attempt to add a hue of heroism or dignity to the proceedings, but the emotional cast barely lightens, and the principal cello (Lorne Monroe) mourns for humanity. There could be some solace in the trumpets and the strings’ response in the latter part of the recapitulation, but a plaintive oboe (Marcel Tabuteau) and bassoon (Sol Schoenbach), answered by the dark contesting tritone groups resist easy answers, unless one finds gallows relief in Sibelius’ indication, “quasi niente” (next to nothing).

Marcel Tabuteau’s oboe–the A natural taken from the end of movement one–opens the tumultuous scherzo, marked Allegro molto vivace. Restive and trembling with foreboding, the music casts the Philadelphia Orchestra in a dark gaudy light that we do not associate with its typical sound. “Il tempo largo” sets the marking for more brooding in the slow movement, an icy Northern landscape, a bleak heart, indeed. So many of the harmonies anticipate Shostakovich, this music might easily pass for the later Russian’s pessimism. The last note of the Largo, C-sharp, becomes the first note of the last movement, to ensure the music’s grouping in pairs. The final Allegro throws out false hopes for revival of the spirit, the cello and glockenspiel urging a breakthrough, the rhythms foursquare. But uneasy is the head that sees the 20th Century too clearly, and the forces of dissolution and angst scatter our optimism to the Scandinavian winds.  

The Fifth Symphony (1916) reverses the polarity of the Fourth, using the perfect fourth as means to induce moral and spiritual victory. Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra emphasize its bright colors, the double exposition of the first movement moving through shimmering energies between E-flat and G Major, even incorporating a scherzo structure as a kind of trio before a recapitulation. Ormandy elicits marvelous tension from the stretti in the strings and brass, though none on record achieves the mid-wife function of graduated birth of form as Celibidache won with the Danish National Radio Orchestra. Still, the colossal burst of light proves a spirit akin to Beethoven’s gesture in the Eroica Symphony. Without any credits, we can only surmise trumpet Samuel Krauss heralds the spirited incantation that moves the first movement to a stirring final rotation of thematic groups in what constitutes a scherzo built–however ambiguously–into the first movement.

The lovely second movement Andante mosso, quasi allegretto asks the Philadelphia strings for pizzicati, much in the manner of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, so that a gentle theme and variations–involving some excellent woodwind and brass play from the Philadelphia Orchestra–may proceed thereby.  The last movement often receives the epithet “swan calls,” since Sibelius said he utilized a motif suggestive of a flight of some sixteen swans he once saw in flight. The buzzing tremolandi of the movement’s opening quite sizzles as the horn section begins to announce the hymnal that carries us to an apotheosis that concludes with six spaced chords. We could argue that sonic patina Ormandy rouses from his players rivals the Boston sound we associate with Koussevitzky.

Pristine happily splices the contents of a deleted 10” LP (ML 2158) from 2 April 1950 that contains the most popular of Sibelius’ works, The Swan of Tuonela and Finlandia. No credit is provided for the English horn who sings of death and immortality from Op. 22, the climax marked “con gran suono,” befitting the swooning resignation of the life-force. Much of the scoring of the late bars takes its cue from Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, though here lit by Northern lights. Finlandia reveals something of its Wagnerian character, Ormandy and his Philadelphia winds and brass playing it for all its national fervor, a Sousa treatment that quite works, especially as exhilarated by Pristine’s XR remastering process.

— Gary Lemco

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