The young Simon Rattle of pre-knighthood was seemingly the cat's meow among British music critics throughout the '80s, a sensitive and often dynamic conductor whose recordings endeavored toward new benchmarks in much of the basic early modern repertoire. Here from 1982 is Rattle's initial foray into recording Sibelius, the popular Symphony No. 5, and it became the most talked about recording of the work since Karajan's in the '60s. Here ends the requisite dispensable history lesson.
Rattle and the Philharmonia deliver a well-prepared and wonderfully understated interpretation that forces one to re-think this popular symphony in terms which are mostly extra-musical; i.e., cerebrally, as if inside the head of a dual-faced Janus consisting of the young conductor and the dourly disposed composer himself, only looking at each other instead of oppositely! Unlike Esa-Pekka Salonen's outright depressing recording with the same orchestra from a few years later, Rattle brings his own youthful intellect and optimism to bear on this fine music while effectively harnessing its more overtly dynamic attributes -- it's this latter consideration which may dissuade the novice listener and rebuff the seasoned one. A few listens, however, have brought me around. I've become particularly taken by the wonderful play (and interplay) of the woodwinds heard throughout, as well as the purposely blatty brass which evoke the large fowl flying overhead in the Sibelian realm. The big build in the coda to the first movement, one of the most thrilling moments in the entire repertoire for this listener, is rendered in a controlled manner and culminates not with a bang, not with a whimper, but merely as the end of the first part of a lengthier musical journey. The pianissimo strings in the finale are on the very threshold of audibility (even through headphones!), in itself an ear-catching technical feat, but it still remains temporally and emotionally consistent with this well-played, well-articulated, and sensitive performance.
In my opinion, Bernstein and Karajan are the most effective in pulling out all the stops in all the right places in Sibelius No. 5 -- Rattle/Philharmonia is the antithesis, one I can now readily advocate as a fine alternative. I've read where Rattle's subsequent Sibelius No. 5 recording, part of his complete cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is appreciably different -- I've yet to hear it.
The Nielsen recordings here date from '85 during Rattle's prodigious stint with the Birmingham orchestra. Pan and Syrinx is a brief buffer between the main attractions --it's both evocative and powerful, especially the brooding cello and marvelous brass crescendo in the middle. In my limited experience with it, this is the most effective and entertaining performance I've heard.
Rattle's rendition of the Symphony No. 4 "The Inextinguishable" invites a special scrutiny among those who love this work. I've read one critic describe the performance as "fussy", I suppose in reference to Rattle's tendency to deliberately fawn over certain details in sacrifice of momentum. As evidenced here, however, there's certainly much to love and fawn over. It's true that Rattle takes the middle two movements of this seamless symphony at a pace that elicits a great deal of both loving detail and charm. Where charm exists and flourishes, however, there's always a most effective countervailing aggression that follows -- this performance never wallows in sweetness and light. The culminating, all-consuming tympani battle in the final movement is brought to bear with resolute meaning and results in an equally powerful victory, putatively of Man's capacity for creative good over those forces which would usurp it. To my ears, Rattle's judgments and the orchestra's responses are much more effective than the likes of Karajan and Barbirolli in their likewise expansive and deliberative readings. Instead of "rattling" on, I'll conclude by saying that this lucid performance, as manifested by the young conductor's understanding of Nielsen's multi-fold wartime expression, is worth the "fuss"!