Good performances of Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 don't necessarily require a genuinely good conductor. This is one of those pieces that can be said to play itself: It's filled with good tunes, notes that are not terribly difficult to play and dramatic moments that lead inevitably to a grand peroration.
Genuinely grand performances of this most popular of the Sibelius symphonies, however -- the kind that guest conductor Mariss Jansons gave last night with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Meyerhoff Hall -- are another matter; they require a conductor who is a master.
Jansons, the Latvian-born music director of the Oslo Philharmonic and one of the two conductors of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, understands this symphony. Unlike most conductors today, he knows that slowing down and sentimentalizing Sibelius robs him of his energy and his coherence. Jansons' performance was fast and taut in the manner of George Szell and he sought and achieved an orchestral sound that was like burnished metal. But he also understood -- and this is rarer still -- how to make the piece's silences pregnant with meaning. And he knew how to bend tempos and to make the minute hesitations -- without ever sacrificing the symphony's line -- that allow the work to swell with grandeur.