, January 2011
This DVD contains some of Sibelius’s biggest hits, such as the Violin Concerto and the Valse triste. Less known but certainly no less interesting is the symphonic suite op. 14, Rakastava (The Lover), a work written in 1911 and based on a Finnish folk poem. Sandwiched between these Scandinavian works is Schumann’s Second Symphony.
The coupling may seem odd, but there’s something very appealing about it; both composers searched for an abstract and deeply emotional expression of their musical thoughts and did that in a very similar way—by means of the classical symphony orchestra.
Valeriy Sokolov is one of the rising stars of the violin. At the age of 24, he has already worked together with some of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors. His playing is powerful and warm, although he occasionally suffers from minor intonation problems. His approach is traditional, with no rushed tempi. However, it’s his care for big phrasing and breathing that gives this performance an extra dimension. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays extremely attentively and controlled under Ashkenazy’s baton. The interaction with the soloist is simply stunning.
In his long and distinguished career, Vladimir Ashkenazy proved himself not only to be a world-class pianist, but also to be an accomplished conductor in the important symphonic repertoire. Many of his numerous recordings have been critically acclaimed, and rightly so. His complete Sibelius cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra ranks among the best, next to Blomstedt and Davis. Although his music-making could be called overly romantic and dated, he masters the skill to sculpt a work with large phrasing and poetic expression.
Since it was founded in 1981, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe has been one of the best chamber orchestras in the world. Thanks to its work with Abbado and Harnoncourt, it has become an all-around top-class ensemble. Although the strings have always lacked a personal sound, their playing remains of the highest standard. Rarely have I heard and seen such pleasure in music-making. Every musician seems to enjoy his work—so much that it’s almost on the edge of mannerism.
Schumann’s Second Symphony is the most expressive of all four. It’s a work that needs control and passion at the same time. Bernstein, Barenboim, and Sawallisch understood the qualities of this music like no others—but Ashkenazy comes close. His sense for structure has always been fine, but here it’s remarkable. This symphony fits him like a glove.
In the Scherzo, Ashkenazy takes a swift but constantly controlled tempo. This is one of the most demanding movements in the Romantic repertoire and so often things go wrong. The orchestra plays it with flair and natural ease. The only drawback is the small size of the orchestra and its extreme care not to use too much vibrato. The third movement therefore loses much of its romantic power and sensitivity. The symphony ends with an excited finale in which the individual sections do a fabulous job. The concert ends with Sibelius’s charming Valse triste—a memorable concert indeed. Sound is excellent although a little dry, which means that the individual orchestral groups don’t really blend perfectly.