April 30, 2020
(++++) TONE POEMS WRIT LARGE
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; King Christian II Suite. Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Alpha. $18.99.
The second release in Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s Sibelius cycle on the Alpha label fulfills the promise of the first while showing this young Finnish conductor (born 1985) becoming more comfortable with his unusual and powerful vision of the symphonies of Finland’s most famous composer. The initial release, of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, was unusual and dramatic – and very much a matter of taste. It was replete with rubato and emphases that turned Sibelius’ First into a highly energetic, craggy and often peculiarly phrased work that at times barely sounded like Sibelius at all. “Reconsideration” was almost too mild a word for Rouvali’s interpretative stance, which made Sibelius sound sometimes like Bruckner, sometimes like a tone-poem composer who inadvertently mislabeled an exceptionally episodic First Symphony. Rouvali’s was a polarizing interpretation – but there is much less of that level of controversy in his reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, and much more of the fine attention to detail and nuance that was the best part of his recording of No. 1.
Make no mistake: Rouvali is still eager to push Sibelius’ tempo markings to extremes, notably in the second movement of No. 2, where fast sections are very fast and slow ones practically stop in their tracks. He still takes full rests very seriously indeed, stretching them to such an extent that the music has a stop-and-start quality even beyond what Sibelius put into it. But Sibelius did put much of this into his Symphony No. 2, and as a result, Rouvali’s approach seems more organized and well-accentuated here than it did in the much smoother and more overtly Germanic Symphony No. 1. It is in his Second Symphony that Sibelius really began to find his unique compositional voice where symphonies are concerned, and Rouvali seems thoroughly attuned to the special characteristics that Sibelius brought to the symphonic form in this work. Indeed, in retrospect, it may be that Rouvali, in his reading of Sibelius’ First, was trying – with mixed success – to find an interpretation that would look ahead to the approach that Sibelius took in his later symphonies.
Be that as it may, Rouvali’s handling of Sibelius’ Second brings out the very best in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, whose brass growls, whose winds flit both pointedly and delicately about, whose strings have bite as well as warmth. The second movement, in particular, is quite marvelous: its intensity never flags, and Rouvali – given a tempo indication that actually calls for considerable use of rubato (the exact marking is Tempo andante, ma rubato) – lets his imagination fly, accentuating the different sections of the music to fine effect without ever overindulging to an extent that could easily become grotesque. This movement comes across as a dramatic tone poem within a larger tone poem, as if the entire symphony possesses an arc of storytelling within which this movement’s tale is told with particular drama and effectiveness.
The rest of the symphony has remarkable power. The first movement is strong and bright, structurally sound and elegantly poised. The third is marked Vivacissimo, and Rouvali pushes the opening tempo so determinedly that it is a real credit to the orchestra that it can keep up and maintain so high a level of clarity in intonation. Again, Rouvali looks for maximum contrast in this movement’s next section, essentially stopping the entire forward motion of the music so as to bring out the lyrical beauty that Sibelius offers here. The back-and-forth between fast and slow sections is somewhat jarring, but in a way that seems to accentuate Sibelius’ intentions rather than run counter to them. And as the third movement yields attacca to the finale, with its spectacularly beautiful first theme, Rouvali urges the orchestra to ever-higher levels of intense commitment, to such an extent that the fourth movement sounds not only like a tone poem but also like a film score for a particularly impassioned directorial odyssey. Yet Rouvali – a percussionist as well as conductor – is also sensitive here to the extreme care with which Sibelius uses small sections of the music and the orchestra to provide contrast with the massed sound of the ensemble (one of the few instances in which Sibelius utilizes a technique more closely associated with Mahler). Rouvali’s symphony-as-extended-tone-poem approach is even more apparent here than in the earlier movements, as he gives each section of the finale a clear beginning and conclusion even at the occasional expense of some forward momentum. As the conclusion of the symphony approaches through a very extended full-orchestra crescendo, Rouvali takes pains to allow a final dip into quieter, more contemplative waters before the genuine splendor of D major sweeps everything into a brilliant conclusion. It is quite a performance.
Also on this recording is the five-movement King Christian II Suite, which is somewhat earlier than the symphony (1898 vs.1902). The suite is drawn from music for a stage play and is more direct and less complex than the symphony, and in some ways more immediately appealing. Rouvali handles this material with a lighter and, in truth, less-intrusive touch than he uses for the symphony. The first two movements, Nocturne and Elegie, flow naturally and pleasantly, with expressiveness and thematic construction that are noticeably “Sibelian” even at this stage of the composer’s development. Elegie, originally the overture to the play (by Adolf Georg Wiedersheim-Paul, 1863-1943), is a particularly adept bit of scene-setting. The third and shortest movement, a bright little Musette, is followed by a Serenade whose rather martial character Rouvali emphasizes to good effect. The suite ends with a Ballade whose intense opening and scurrying middle section actually foreshadow the Second Symphony; indeed, this movement has something of the feeling of a brief tone poem about it, just as Symphony No. 2, in Rouvali’s performance, has a similar feeling writ large. The pairing of this suite with this symphony is a thoughtful one, giving this entire release a welcome cohesiveness that allows Rouvali to demonstrate the effectiveness of his approach in different but clearly related contexts.