Icelandic Sibelius – Symphony No.2 & Tempest Suite No.1 (Naxos)

Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
The Tempest: Suite No.1, op.109/2

Iceland Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554266 (Details)
[68:08] budget-price

An original Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

What I like about this reading of the Second Symphony is its tightly driven energy, the no-nonsense blazing brass of the first movement, coupled with confidence and power. Sakari has an admirable measure of the surge and the ebb, the flow and the outburst of the symphony. The Andante has no lack of atmosphere; the opening pizzicato “walk” is not as mysterious as some other accounts, but makes up for it with the aforementioned sense of confidence, and attention to detail without being too deliberate. I enjoyed the slow unveiling of the woodwind episodes after the brassy tumult, the chilly rock-hewned power of the Icelandic brass (what gorgeous trumpets – and listen for their diminuendi), and the solemn-heroic build towards the end.

The pacing of the Vivacissimo is excellent, neither too fast or slow. At 6:17 it is on the long side, but I enjoyed the slick drama that the Icelanders churn from the score. Even more impressive is the bridging to the finale – very well done indeed, without a wisp of too much hesitation or too little breathtaking anticipation, the Icelanders slip into the rising theme with calm nobility. The trombones pulsate nicely, the woodwind pedals are leveled just right in the background, while the trumpets thrust their fanfare with flawless magnificence in both their big appearances. The horns deserve mention too for making good their support.

The swirling storm that leads to the final coda is not exactly the most powerful, most stormy one I’ve heard. Though I am impressed by the work put in by the woodwinds at the top of the score, the overall picture is slightly wanting in that final ounce of relentlessness, of that feeling of heroic defiance that gives this work such a patriotic ring. Nevertheless, this is not a bad reading at all. In fact, the coda itself is satisfyingly majestic, with brass rising even higher and louder than before, blazing above each other in triumph. The full D major glory of the final chords are savoured with great relish.

* * * * *

The coupling of the First Suite from The Tempest is a little odd and unusual, the work coming from the end of Sibelius’ known orchestral output, whereas the symphony is among his first. It makes a great contrast, especially the magical aura of The Oak Tree (and Ariel’s Song), to which the chilly sounds of the Icelanders do good justice to, if not as sorcerous as Segerstam’s account on Ondine.

The Humoresque is ably done, though I’ve heard more liquid playing from other clarinettists. The orchestra sings Caliban’s Song with ample colour and drama, loudmouthed and lurid (It’s quite hard to get this piece wrong, so far in my listening experience); and is then repeated gruesomely in the middle of the Scène. I greatly enjoyed the pulse and flow of this performance of The Harvesters. The little details are really nice – the quiet snare drum, the field of floating strings, the harp, flute – all add up to a very picturesque tone painting.

Strangely, in The Storm, the recording (or is it the conductor?) gives great prominence to the brass, somewhat downplaying the turbulence of the strings. At other times, the lower brass (as in that rising series of chords) is drowned. In all, a committed performance, but sonically the result is too blocky, too opaque. The Naxos sound isn’t really very transparent, which may be at fault.

My recent “live” encounter with some of this music has made me realise the extent that contrast plays a part in The Tempest. One particular example is the Intrada-Berceuse. Here, I think Sakari doesn’t quite put in enough thrust into the shattering blows of the Intrada, though it is not ineffective. The gentle Berceuse itself receives a fine interpretation, with strings sounding timid and restrained, almost emasculated.

Overall, excellent performances of the symphony and most of the Suite and a worthy successor to the previous release of Symphonies Nos.1 and 3 (reviewed here). If you need a recording of No.2, you can safely invest in this, which comes with the bonus of The Tempest (if incomplete). But if the latter interests you more than the former, go for the Ondine/Segerstam and the complete theatre score recorded on BIS (detailed here).

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Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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