Until now, Hans Rosbaud was batting .500 in Sibelius: an excellent DG disc of tone poems and other pieces, and an absolutely grotesque account of the Sixth Symphony from Cologne. Happily, this two-disc set is all good, and hardly conventional. It’s useful to remember that when these versions of symphonies 2, 4 and 5 were recorded (1955-61), Sibelius interpretation hadn’t become as standardized as it is now. In Germany, especially, the composer’s symphonies were hardly known, so Rosbaud was very much exploring virgin territory.
Consider this performances of the Second Symphony, with its very measured opening movement and extremely quick finale. It’s certainly different from what we expect to encounter today, but Rosbaud’s control of pacing and careful attention to accent and phrasing is such that it all sounds perfectly natural and convincing. The Fifth Symphony, too, moves effortlessly, with a surprisingly acceleration at the very end. What is missing here are the music’s heroic climaxes, its rugged grandeur, although this might be due to the fact that the Baden-Baden orchestra, though well-drilled, simply hadn’t the necessary heft at this period.
The Fourth Symphony, however, is simply stunning. Rosbaud’s handling of texture reveals layers of color in the first movement, string parts especially, that you’ve never heard before, while the tragic finale is unflaggingly gripping. Rosbaud is not a literalist. He ignores Sibelius’ indication to take the closing bars in tempo, and mezzo forte, opting instead for a darker, sadder, softer conclusion that replaces cold indifference with a measure of human despair. As I said, it’s hardly conventional, but perfectly valid and masterfully done.
As a bonus, the three orchestral songs sound splendid as performed here by Kim Borg. These are all studio recordings, captured in good, broadcast quality mono. If you collect Sibelius, you will need to hear these performances, no question about it.