Not Your Ideal Sibelius
Moldyoldie | Motown, USA | 09/02/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"For everyone's information, this original Deutsche Grammophon recording has been re-released on the corporate umbrella budget label Universal: Sibelius: Finlandia; Valse triste; Symphony No. 2
I never knew Levine recorded Sibelius and was most curious. Whether it was Brahms, Schumann, or Mahler; Levine always seemed willing to dive headlong into the thorniest of music with no fear -- and such is the case here. Oftentimes it works, but other times....
Both Finlandia and the beautiful Valse Triste are brought off with an aim toward effect and a minimum of nuance; both pieces are such that neither suffers terribly from the approach. However, the popular Symphony No. 2, even though it's performed in the same no-fuss manner as Paavo Berglund's bracing '80s recording with the Helsinki Philharmonic (timings are virtually identical) , lacks the idiomatic phrasing and orchestral details which mark the great performances and separates them from the merely visceral. This listener was often wondering things like: What happened to the winds? I thought there was supposed to be a horn there, where is it? Aren't there supposed to be some tympani at that point? In the big finale especially, orchestral balances are out of whack and the often shaky ensemble is exacerbated by Levine's seemingly forced forward thrust, even though it's brought home with great conviction. These things probably aren't of much interest to a novice listener whose first impression of a work is often one of visceral impact -- which brings me to the sound of the orchestra.
As exemplified with this recording and others I've heard, DG's '90s-era digital recording technology (marketed as 4-D) yields the most incredibly vivid orchestral sound imaginable! Regardless of the aforementioned ensemble lapses, the Berlin strings sound as sleek and magnificent here as one has ever heard. The brass and percussion are heard and felt with an impact as lucid as Lucifer's hammer -- but all to what end? As bold and full-blooded as is this performance and recording of the Second Symphony overall, I'm forced to agree with those who would maintain that James Levine is not your ideal Sibelian."