SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 6 in d, Op. 104; Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105; Tapiola, Op. 112 – Atlanta Sym. Orch./ Robert Spano – ASO Media CD-1004, 70:26 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has a long and involved relationship with the music of Jean Sibelius. Years ago, it was the Second Symphony that provided the “winning audition” for conductor Yoel Levi’s tenure with the ensemble, a partnership that elevated the orchestra to the technical heights it had not yet achieved under Robert Shaw, and proved equally impressive in terms of subsequent recording activities. Levi recorded the work with the Cleveland Orchestra on Telarc, and then turned his attention to a disc of tone poems with the ASO that was well-received, as was his recording of the First and Fifth Symphonies, the former featuring one of the most gloriously played opening clarinet solos on disc.
Now, after a very successful multichannel outing with the composer’s Kullervo, Robert Spano once again turns his attention to the chilly clime of Finland for the trilogy of Sibelius’s final works: his last two symphonies and the tone poem Tapiola.
The composer lost a lot of confidence in his later years, admitting turning to alcohol and not feeling physically strong. His own descriptions of his ideas for his two symphonies are strikingly at odds with the emotional outlooks we associate with them. Far from the predicted doom and gloom of No. 6, instead we are treated to one of the most perfectly formed pieces the composer ever envisioned though it often proves difficult for conductors in terms of overall unity of balance and connectedness. To me the most successful have been Colin Davis, John Barbirolli, and Herbert von Karajan, the latter providing one of the best, if not the best, on disc. Spano now joins this elite group with a reading that is well-paced and exceptionally well-judged in the delineation of the composer’s many difficult dynamic changes and overall moods.
The Seventh Symphony, in one movement and unique among the entire Sibelius symphonic catalog, is another piece which defies the initial reports from the composer. It is short and never static, and only just manages to provide a requisite sense of progression and interaction among its many ideas. In truth it is a marvel in the composer’s output—veering too far left or right would destroy the symmetry and wreck the delicate and almost mystical scaffolding that the composer provides. To my mind, it is Leonard Bernstein’s DGG recording that best captures the essence of this work, and Spano doesn’t change my mind about that. But this does not denigrate his efforts either as this is a fine reading of great substance, easily the equal of many on the market, even if the Sixth is the main attraction. One hopes that Nos. 2, 3, and 4 will be on the way to complete the ASO cycle.
Tapiola is the composer’s final work, one that defies its tone poem connotations of the Forest Spirit Tapio that appears throughout the Kalevala. Okko Kamu, a noted Sibelian, has recorded it to good effect on the BIS label in surround sound, a tough issue to top. Ormandy’s RCA version is also very fine, and joins Spano as one that falls into the rather “slow” category; yet Spano doesn’t let the work lag, and is able to keep the piece from collapsing under its own rather heavy harmonic weight. But once again it is Karajan that to me has the full measure of this piece, his remarkable Berlin Philharmonic adding a lot of gravitas to a rather thin-DGG sound overall, and this is where I think Spano has the upper edge in the ASO recording.
Producer Elaine Martone was active on many of the ASO’s award-winning discs, and this one is a product of a seasoned veteran. I do hope they gravitate to SACD in the future [Unlikely if they started out with only standard CDs…Ed.], but the sound is excellent, marking a continuation in a very successful Sibelius series.