SEVERAL young pianists have tried their hands at conducting in the last few years, but few with such notable success -- on records, anyway -- as Vladimir Ashkenazy. His performances of Tchaikovshky's Fourth, Fifth and Manfred symphonies on London, and of Villa-Lobos' concerted works with pianist Cristina Ortiz on Angel, are in every sense distinguished. If his Sibelius Second, with which he launched his digital cycle of that composer's symphonies with the Philharmonia on London some months ago, was somewhat disappointing, it was nonetheless an interpretation with a distinctive point of view. The second installment in that cycle, a disc on which the big work is the Fourth Symphony (LDR-71019), is nothing less than a triumph -- for Sibelius as well as for Ashkenazy.
This strikes me, in fact, as one of the finest recordings yet made of any music, in any medium, both sonically and musically. Surely there has been no more impressive showcase for the digital technique. The bite of the cellos and basses in the Symphony's opening, the plangency of the brass, the perfectly placed timpani and triangle, and the altogether realistic sense of proportion maintained throughout the two sides are thrilling in their own right; happily, they serve some really magnificent music-making.
The clarity and definition of the digital recording do not emphasize sumptuousness, which would be out or place in the Fourth Symphony, but the stark grandeur of the work. From the first bar to the last there is luminous conviction, and in the exalted slow movement, perhaps the finest single movement in all Sibelius's symphonies, Ashkenazy reaches the very deepest level by, in part, simply refusing to exaggerate. He keeps the music moving, assures its momentum, and shows there is no need for interpretive underscoring of what Sibelius has already made so incredibly poignant. In the enigmatic finale, his solution of the "bells" problem is simply to use a glockenspiel -- which has the unarguable virtue of never threatening to overpower the orchestra, as chimes and other devices can do.
The Symphony does not take up the entire disc, of course. After its finale, on side 2, there are two shorter works. The first is the altogether remarkable, and still all but unknown, "Luonnotar," in which the soloist is the glorious Swedish soprano Elizabeth Soederstroem, with whom Ashkenazy has collaborated as pianist in a number os superb song recordings. There has never been so effective a performance of "Luonnotar," which could well emerge from its undeserved neglect on the strength of this presentation. One understands at once why this setting of the Kalevala tale of the creation of the world was so dear to composer's heart.
The final piece in this collection is the familiar "Finlandia." Anyone who may feel such an overexposed chestnut must be a letdown in so otherwise distinguished a program can happily disabuse himself of that notion by simply listening to this performance. How often can anyone have heard this beloved but battered piece treated with the unself-conscious dignity and conviction that inform this performance?
Toscanini showed a similar feeling for its raw urgency and the nobility that is often smothered in sentimentalized readings. Ashkenazy's approach, while in the same straightforward vein, is no less distinctive. As in the Fourth Symphony, his refusal to indulge in gratuitous interpretive overlay or to underscore the obvious allows the integrity of the work to shine with uncommon brightness. One would not believe "Finlandia" could be performed with such exciting freshness -- but Ashkenazy allows us to acknowlege that the credit belongs to Sibelius.
The Dutch pressing is exemplary. If there is room for complaint, it must be noted that the failure to provide a printed text -- or even a synopsis of the text -- for so unfamiliar a work as "Luonnotar" is a serious offense (London doesn't even bother to list the work's opus number, 70). Perhaps this will be corrected in the next production run, but don't count on it, and don't wait for that development to begin enjoying this really outstanding release.