It’s been a while since the name of Owain Arwel Hughes (born 1942, he turns eighty shortly) has come my way; yet some investigation finds that he continues to hold appointments with Camerata Wales, the Welsh Proms, and at the University of Wales. Away from the principality in June last year, he was in London at St John’s Smith Square to record this pair of Sibelius Symphonies, which follows a Rubicon coupling with him of numbers One and Three (which I have not heard and in fact do not have).
This second volume, all eighty-seven minutes of it, is really quite impressive, very well recorded – dynamic and clear – by Phil Rowlands and produced with typical attention to high-end results by Andrew Keener. Hughes’s conducting of the Second Symphony is expansive but impassioned and directionally assured, the RPO playing with unanimity, dedication and ardour, finely detailed. One might have liked a little more impetus in the first movement, and also in the Scherzo, although the oboe/cello Trio of the latter is quite lovely; whereas the second movement, which can sprawl, is taut and dramatic, while the Finale, led into momentously, avoids pomposity without diluting grandeur and triumph.
Following the stirring Second we are plunged into the great if disturbing Fourth. This is not the darkest of accounts but there is a tangible emotional urgency that sustains the listener, and which also retains the music’s enigma. The especially edgy second movement is a highlight, and if the slow third (Il tempo largo) is maybe not expansive enough (cf. Karajan and Vänskä) then the players’ concentration is palpable, so too the increasing desolation expressed … a well-timed attacca takes us into the Finale (with glockenspiel – yes, this seems to have been Sibelius’s preference when scoring for the ambiguous “Glocken” – but ‘colder’ bells are preferable, as demonstrated for examples by Ansermet, Colin Davis and Maazel) and which Hughes sustains effectively at a moderate tempo and increasing tension to an unflinching dissonant climax and a numbed aftermath.
Rubicon RCD1072. Presumably the remaining three Symphonies will follow, maybe on one disc.
An interesting combination of two contrasting symphonies which now seem closer together. No 2 full of romantic fervour but also of personal crisis when played at the right tempo, although, from this review, this may not be the case.
No 4 is full of even more personal crisis and an alarming declaration of shuffling off the mortal coil. This performance sounds as if it is attempting to reach those parts of the human mind not reached by other composers. Interesting and I have been a fan of Maestro Hughes for a long time, enjoying his Symphony No 1 from years past.
I am advised that 5, 6 & 7 were recorded last November and will be accommodated on one disc.
Absolutely disappointed by this rendition of the 2nd – the opening measures alone meander across three separate tempos, all of them sleepy. I don’t mind a slower first movement if it actually has momentum, but it plods along shapelessly. The final movement glosses over those special details that make it so interesting. Those staccato trombone notes that pulse underneath that rousing motif are lost in a slurry of sound, played almost as legato. (And sloppily articulated, I might add.) They should buoy this movement, not drag it. I know this is a bit crass of me to say, but I think it’s a farce of an interpretation. There is a mountain of Sibelius 2s, and this sits neatly near the bottom of the heap.