Sibelius: Symphony No. 5/Ormandy

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 8

Let’s start with the tone poems. These always have been great performances. En Saga, with its acres of string ostinatos, surges with energy made all the more potent thanks to moderate tempos that let the players really articulate their parts. It also sports a climax that has the finest brass playing around, and while the sonics lack bass and are slightly compressed, the engineers get the balances exactly right. I have no doubt that remastering would open up the sound even more (and maybe give the bass drum better definition), but until that unlikely event occurs, this will do just fine.

Tapiola also is outstanding. This probably is the best of all the slower versions: it lasts nearly 20 minutes, but there isn’t a dull moment. It’s usual to praise the Philadelphia strings, and they are wonderful, but it’s the woodwinds that are particularly impressive here. Ormandy finds all kinds of creepy, ear-catching detail in this score, and he gives his players plenty of time to project it characterfully. Consider, for example, the eerie passage before the return of the second subject, where the woodwinds chortle and chatter like evil little imps. It’s wonderful, and that big orchestra scream after the storm episode is all the more hair-raising for being so beautifully phrased.

I have to confess that I have always undervalued this recording of the Fifth Symphony, Ormandy’s only one in stereo. The last two movements really are outstanding, fluid yet finely detailed, with one of the best endings you’ll find anywhere. The final build-up defines the word “massive” in symphonic terms. But the first movement’s coda seemed to lack the energy that others, such as Bernstein (Sony, not DG) brought to it. Listening again, it now seems all of a piece. Ormandy’s ability to capture the dark atmosphere of the movement’s first half is unrivaled, and the climactic transition to the second part is managed effortlessly. And if other conductors have managed a more physically exciting acceleration into the coda, this one has plenty of the necessary buoyancy and some pretty telling rhythmic articulation from the strings.

All things considered, even given the very tough competition, this interpretation oozes echt-Sibelian character while maintaining a vivid personality all its own. And as just mentioned, the tone poems are stupendous. A great disc, now available “on demand” from [4/2/2008]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Fifth: Davis/BSO (Philips), Segerstam (Ondine), Tapiola (This One)

JEAN SIBELIUS - Symphony No. 5; En Saga; Tapiola

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