Jean Sibelius × Symphony No. 2 & Symphony No. 6. Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 43; Symphony No. 6 in d, op. 104. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Thomas Beecham, conductior. Dutton CDLX 7033.
The music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) can seem shapeless with the wrong conductor, as was the case when Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a recent performance of the Symphony No. 2. It also lacked character, nuance, and had a herky-jerky rhythmic quality as if the composer kept having ideas and dropping them. There was no rhythmic flexibility, a tradition which Sibelius brought from the 19th century into our own. Fortunately, he was very well served in his lifetime by Eugene Ormandy and, especially, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), who knew that his long build ups were just as structural as atmospheric, and there’s plenty of both in these wonderful performances of Sibelius’ two symphonies in D.
Opus 43 marks a transition to the composer’s mature style. Still, Sibelius’ thinking and use of the orchestra – playing different sections against each other – is fully evident here, with spatial effects such as the stark pizzicato figure in the basses at the opening of Movement II which he contrasts with a fanfare-like one in winds and brass redolent of medieval folksong. Opus 104 (1923) is even more subtle and refined, and certainly more concentrated in every way. Sibelius focuses on long arching melodies in the strings with linear counterpoint, and modal harmonies which have the flavor of High Renaissance sacred writing. Although the 2nd is pretty much a repertory piece, the 6th deserves wider exposure. Perhaps this vibrant and dynamic recording made in 1946 and 1947 in London, and issued as part of the RPO Legacy – it’s Volume 3 – will spread its charms further. The Royal Philharmonic was the third orchestra Beecham founded (1946), the other two, the New Symphony and the London Philharmonic, were established in 1910 and 1932 respectively. And though this CD hasn’t the plush resonance sometimes found in later recordings it more than holds its age. Musicmaking of this character, individuality and drive is certainly rare these days.