January 2019 is Sibelius Symphony month. I am much looking forward to Paavo Järvi’s complete cycle from Paris for Sony – and also publishing Ateş Orga’s review and Edward Clark’s interview with the conductor – and, meanwhile, Santtu-Matias Rouvali (a Finn in Sweden) begins a Symphony and Symphonic Poem survey (to include Kullervo, I wonder?) from Gothenburg for Alpha.
I started with En Saga (as revised), an immediately gripping account, full of atmosphere and story-telling, Rouvali attentive to dynamics and note-values and the Gothenburg musicians honed and responsive, and the recorded sound is excellent, vivid and tangible, yet set naturally in a recognisable and unencumbered (if slightly too bright) acoustic. Rouvali builds the narrative (unstated by Sibelius, if full of potential for the imagination) by stealth, relishing the invention and colours (not least from the threatening bass drum) without overstating either and equally without denuding scenic promise. Forward momentum laced with poise and much expression is the hallmark, the latter quality to the fore during the still-centre of the piece – sensitive solo strings – and at the close (following a thrilling flare-up, with notable brass hairpins electrifying the air) during which Urban Claesson’s clarinet musing is a model of poeticism as the music fades into the ghostly ether.
Symphony 1 is no-less-fine in terms of Rouvali’s commitment to it, opening with subdued if ominous timpani leaving room for (another) clarinet solo, lamenting this time, to cue a volatile reading, with passionate sweep to conjure a storm-tossed landscape but with no lack of light and shade or communicative leeway, if occasionally pulling the music out of shape, a lingering here, a broadening there, and a tendency to exaggerate the theatre of it all (the brass can now be a touch too heady).
A silent studio this may be (in terms of high production values, no noises-off) but this is not an empty orchestra, Gothenburg giving its all for a conductor who has much fervour for this music, as if an audience was present, even if the slow movement is a little too restless (some lovely tracery along the way though), for Rouvali is more likely to take time to enjoy the view. He comes into his own in the Scherzo, deliberately paced and ruggedly delineated (terrific hard-stick timpani), the Trio a languorous interlude, and the highlight is the Finale, Quasi una fantasia (not that those three words appear anywhere in Alpha’s annotation), suiting Rouvali’s penchant for drama and expansiveness: he makes us wait for those ultimate pizzicatos.
If a little wearing at times, and to a certain extent predictable as to interpretative choices, this first volume – one that compels if not to clear the shelves of existing versions – heralds what should be a distinctive Sibelius series, hopefully cloth being cut to suit each work. If we gave half-stars, this is three-and-a-half. I am being cautious.