The Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, music director since 2003 of the Minnesota Orchestra, long ago proved himself a formidable interpreter of Nordic music in general and Sibelius in particular. This symphonic cycle – two highly praised discs are already out – is now complete, with this album of the pliant, classical Symphony No 3, the little known and underrated No 6 and the mysterious, enthralling single-movement No 7. The playing is polished and detailed, now springy and buoyant, now occluded and chilling. Tempi are slightly broad but convincingly so. From the plunging energy of the opening of the Third Symphony to the bleak, raw ending of the Seventh, this is a gripping listen.
The source of the Lemminkäinen Suite is the Finnish national epic Kalevala, and its four movements – of which ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ is often performed separately - tell of the adventures of the young hero Lamminkäinen. In comparison, The Wood-Nymph only had its first complete performance in 1996. This was given by the performers on this disc, a team which has become synonymous with top-flight idiomatic Sibelius performances.
'My apotheosis of the dance' is how Kalevi Aho describes his Symphony No.15. With two dance movements and rhythm a central element, the score calls for numerous percussion instruments, including non-Western ones such as bongos, darbuka, djembe and the riqq, an Arabian tambourine. The composer's interest in non-Western music and instruments has been evident in several recent works, such as his Symphony No. 14 (recorded on BIS-1686) and Oboe Concerto (BIS-1876). It also played an important part during the creation of Minea, composed as a concert opener for the Minnesota Orchestra on the initiative of Osmo Vänskä, who also conducts the work here.
Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 are poles apart in their musical style and make a highly interesting pairing for this new release. Symphony No. 1 is rooted in the symphonic tradition and has a particular tunefulness reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, whereas Symphony No. 4 is highly original and introverted, often being seen as modern and ‘cubist’ by listeners in the 1890s.
Expectations ran high in anticipation of this release, and they have not been disappointed. BIS just completed a partially successful Beethoven piano concerto series in which an often inspired Ronald Brautigam was shackled to an expressively challenged and period-pedantic Andrew Parrott. Here, both conductor and soloist are consistently operating on the same exciting wavelength.
To many, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra has become synonymous with excellence in Sibelius repertoire. Its numerous recordings with the previous chief conductor Osmo Vänskä have received countless distinctions and awards, and the orchestra is universally regarded as having a very special affinity for the music of their great compatriot.
British orchestras and their audiences have long held a special affinity for the orchestral works of Jean Sibelius, and the Hallé's venerable tradition of playing his music continues in this superb recording of the Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, the Symphony No. 7 in C major, and the symphonic poem En Saga. Mark Elder's straightforward interpretations are clear-headed and meticulous yet intensely passionate, and the orchestra responds to his direction by digging deep and playing with a commitment that is nearly perceptible. These symphonies and En Saga are representative of Sibelius' mature style, so their deliberate pacing and steady unfolding of motives into organic developments over long time spans require attentive listening, but the clarity of Elder's readings makes the progress of the music easy to follow. Add to this the exceptional reproduction, which brings out every detail with crispness, and presents the Hallé's warm and rich sonorities with credible presence, and the end result is a nearly ideal presentation of Sibelius' music.