"In Jansons’ magical hands the progression seems more personal, perhaps of psychology rather than nationalism, Sibelius’s psyche rather than his land." Jessica Duchen reviews Sibelius's Symphony No.2 in D major played by Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under the baton of Mariss Jansons.
The sound inside the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, is famous in itself before you even add the sonic richesse of its orchestra. It’s a two-way relationship: the acoustic lends its depth and mellow bloom to the orchestra, which often reveals when it plays elsewhere that a similar dusky warmth is embedded in its tone. The qualities mirror one another, perhaps a chicken and egg situation.
Sibelius, though, is more celebrated for his often caustic and always inspirational mingling of fire and ice than for velvety lamplight. There is no shortage of that lighter, brighter sound in this performance, conducted by Mariss Jansons, of his Symphony No. 2 – yet perhaps the overlay of sonic bloom contributes to the unusually intimate impression of the work in this live home-label recording.
This was the symphony in which Sibelius started to move away from the Tchaikovskian sphere of its predecessor and to lend a more distinctive and innovative structure to his already overwhelmingly personal language. Written in 1901-2 – much of it while the composer was in Italy, not Finland – it traverses great emotional spaces with utmost economy, its translucent orchestration etching rapid paths between the innocent, almost bucolic opening and the deeper stirrings of a dark and disruptive soul.
Audiences at first might have associated the piece with Finnish nationalism, but there’s little in it to suggest it should be so – though its music undergoes its own processes of struggle, conflict, and ultimately triumph. In Jansons’ magical hands the progression seems more personal, perhaps of psychology rather than nationalism, Sibelius’s psyche rather than his land.
He catches the balance of those elements, projecting the music’s architecture and philosophy without histrionics, yet with a depth of emotion that seems to probe right to its roots. If some of the tender and doubtful feeling has sounded rawer elsewhere, Jansons nevertheless makes the drama taut and chisels it powerfully, especially in the tense and enigmatic second movement. The transition from the scherzo to the finale’s soaring first theme seems confidently to suggest that the battle is over, only for Sibelius to undermine it with the inexorable rise of subterranean surges that increasingly encroach from the bass. The conclusion melds into acceptance, then blazingly transcends the lot.
Jessica Duchen writes about music for The Independent and is the author of a number of novels, biographies and plays. Current projects include an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017) and a new novel, Ghost Variations, which will be published later this year (Unbound). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.
Performance: 4 stars
Sound: 4 stars
Sibelius: Symphony No.2 in D major
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor)
RCO Live 05005