Thomas Søndergård's hybrid SACD of Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D major and his Symphony No. 7 in C major is an audiophile showcase that presents two contrasting sides of the composer with optimal clarity. The comparatively lush orchestration of the Symphony No. 2 probably has never sounded better in any recorded format, and the multichannel reproduction of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales brings out its vibrant bass, velvety strings, and sumptuous winds in a resonant acoustic, all of which are essential ingredients in the young Sibelius' post-Romantic sound. Yet the Symphony No. 7 presents the sparer counterpoint and leaner textures of Sibelius' mature phase, so the recording brings out the transparency of the timbres, and the clean separation of parts gives an added spatial dimension. Søndergård's interpretations of both works are wholly sympathetic and masterful, and the orchestra plays with the commitment and vitality that make these symphonies compelling. One hopes this is the first installment of a Sibelius cycle, which would be a great addition to Linn's catalog. Highly recommended.
For Simon Rattle, Jean Sibelius is “one of the most staggeringly original composers that there is”. And indeed, this music has a unique musical language whose many beauties are particularly succinctly conveyed in Sibelius’s seven symphonies. There is sonorous warmth as much as there is austere Nordic folklore. Moreover, there is a conceptual boldness that takes the listener on exciting musical journeys of discovery. In 2015, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth, Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker presented the cycle live, which was met with unanimous delight by audiences and critics alike. “The Philharmoniker show that with them and Simon Rattle, Sibelius is in excellent hands,” wrote the Berliner Zeitung, “because the orchestra has that astringency and sheer power which is so important for this kind of music.”
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.
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.
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.
Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund, who passed away in January 2012, was one of the last remaining conductors with a direct personal connection to Sibelius. With the Second and Seventh Symphonies already released on the LPO Label, Berglund’s Sibelius legacy is further cemented in these live concert recordings with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in which he vividly captures the natural flight of the Fifth Symphony and the freefall journey of the Sixth.
With the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony resounds with melodic force, the Eighth is a masterful blend of grace and wit, and the Ninth - directed by Karajan himself - is a vital and explicitly dramatic reading of Beethoven's revolutionary work.