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Sibelius (1865-1957) Symphony No 2 in D major Op 43 [41'11"] Allegretto [10'02"] Tempo andante, ma rubato [11'50"] Vivacissimo [5'44"] Finale: Allegro Moderato [13'31"]

Symphony No 5 in E flat major Op 82 [30'03"] Allegro Moderato [12'50"] Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto [8'27"] Moderato [8'45"]

The Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitsky

Recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston on 24 January 1935 (Symphony No 2) and 29 December 1936 (Symphony No 5)

Naxos "Great Conductors" 8.110170 [71'14"]

The current fashion for re-mastered old recordings has given remarkable insights into the performances of some of the great names in the world of conducting in the 20th century. This release of Sibelius' most well known symphonies has the Boston Symphony conducted by one of the composer's great champions - Serge Koussevitsky. Indeed Koussevitsky was one of the most tenacious figures pursuing Sibelius for the elusive and, ultimately, never heard Eighth Symphony. Following the death of Sibelius' own preferred interpreter, his compatriot Robert Kajanus, the guardianship of the incomplete project to record all of the composer's orchestral works fell to Koussevitsky and Sir Thomas Beecham. This long association with the composer and his works gives an authority to Koussevitsky's interpretations that survives to this day.

In this release, recordings made in the superb acoustic of Boston's Symphony Hall have been remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, a notably non-interventionist transfer engineer. There is a fair degree of surface noise in these recordings, but not to the detriment of the performances. By and large they stand up very well in terms of quality of sound, particularly given the biting power of the Boston brass section.

In interpretation there are numerous aspects that command the attention, and it is fascinating to compare these re-mastered recordings with more modern performances by the likes of Rattle. In particular, the clarity of the strings stands out; a level of orchestral precision that would inspire respect even today. Koussevitsky's comprehension of the structural architecture of the symphonies has always been remarked upon, and is apparent in these recordings - there is a flux and flexibility in the flow of tempo changes that brings across the huge scale of the unfolding structure, even if some of the tempo choices (the sedate opening of the 2nd symphony) are rather unexpected in terms of today's thinking. The inexorability of movement that characterises Sibelius' symphonic writing is stunningly brought out. Most notably in the transition from Scherzo to finale of the 2nd and the great drive to the conclusion of the finale of the 5th. It must be said, however, that this reviewer still finds the telescoping of the dramatic final chords of the 5th an unsatisfactory experience. Whether or not Sibelius sanctioned this interpretation is not known, but it is one that is best not followed.

Given the price of these Naxos discs, and the quality of the transfer, this recording should really find a place on the shelves of all lovers of Sibelius' great symphonies, even if only for comparison with performances of today. A fascinating document of one of the most important figures in the dissemination of the great Finn's work..

(c) Peter Wells 2001

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