This selection of most of the orchestral music composed by Jean Sibelius is presented in a most suitable and easily accessible way. Each of the seven symphonies is placed at the start of a CD with the final disc containing the Violin Concerto together with the remaining music for violin and orchestra.
Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s approach to the Symphonies takes into account the differing nature of each. The vestiges of the Romantic era hinted at in the first two are recognised, and the forceful episodes of the more tautly structured Third and Fifth are delivered with power. The darker, quietly dramatic Fourth and Sixth are interpreted sensitively yet firmly, and the many facets of the Seventh are fashioned eloquently.
The view taken of the First Symphony is both lyrical and flowing. The finale poses a problem of continuity because of the frequent switches between Andante and Allegro molto but because Saraste holds to the same pulse, continuity is achieved whatever the tempo marking. The Second Symphony is less convincing. The first two movements run forward unemphatically, and although the Scherzo is dramatic enough the finale lacks urgency, and the long coda is unconvincing. Without the advantage of the exciting Koussevitzky-inspired timpani part as used in recordings by Anthony Collins, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Charles Mackerras (twice), Serge Kossevitzky (twice), and Antal Doráti (in the concert hall), I suppose something had to be done to dramatise this extensive passage. Perhaps the intention was to convey grandeur, but this enormous slowing of tempo quenches the drive and undermines the nobility of the final pages.
The Third Symphony is a different matter; details like the forceful timpani crescendos are effective (sometimes the significance of these instruments in Sibelius can be underestimated). Saraste’s tempos tend to be swift, and there has been mild controversy about the speed that should be used for the central Andantino con moto quasi allegretto movement. Eyebrows were raised when Collins took only seven and a half minutes to perform it, Saraste takes two more, and even this is relatively swift but I find it no less convincing. Turn to Sibelius’s friend and colleague Robert Kajanus in 1932 and we find him taking two minutes longer still but Sibelius cannot have disapproved.
In the Fourth Symphony Saraste allows the darkly dramatic themes to make their own impact: romantic gestures are avoided, and the shadowy Allegro molto vivace which represents the Scherzo of it is given with speed and delicacy. The positive finale, in which the notable parts for glocken are successfully realised, finally flows darkly and movingly into silence.
How different is the approach to the Fifth: it is powerful and often extremely loud. Again, it is the treatment of the finale that is striking. Certainly the speed of the swinging theme from halfway through is broader than might have been expected, but the final pages have great strength, brass and timpani sweep all before them when driving into the final jagged chords. The Sixth Symphony finds Saraste more expressive, with effective contrasts of dynamics within a strongly flowing interpretation. The Scherzo movement is notable for the precise manner in which this fine orchestra achieves the subtle details
Symphony No.7 has been represented by many fine recordings from Koussevitzky onwards, with writers mentioning Thomas Beecham frequently, but few recall the superb version by the largely forgotten Carl von Garaguly. Again, there is vigour in Saraste’s reading, with suitable attention paid to the imaginative timpani parts – with Sibelius his quiet use of them can be as effective in tonal colouring as when used at full power.
I imagine that the attraction of this set to Sibelius lovers will depend on their reaction to the interpretations of the Symphonies, and one will probably compare them with their favourites among other symphonic sets. Here the nature of the approach makes them sound vivid, and the recordings enhance that aspect. Saraste is at home with symphonic form, and turning to his outstanding performance of the Four Legends, his juxtaposition of tempo between the pieces and his sensitive understanding of the nature of each makes the combination of these works seem to represent a symphony. In the longer pieces the music surges forward dramatically, the variation of melodic material is not allowed to hinder the flow. Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey is given as thrilling a performance as any that I can recall.
The Violin Concerto is nobly performed by Joseph Swensen – known today mainly as a conductor. His gracious interpretation is all the more convincing because the balance between soloist and orchestra is so natural. There is no highlighting of the violin and given the slightly left-of-centre placing of it, one could imagine Swensen playing from the leader’s desk. The challenging orchestral episodes grow naturally from the music – no extra emphasis here and this suits Swensen’s equable reading.
The Humoresques for violin and orchestra that follow are generally light-textured and richly melodic. The Opus 89 group could almost be taken as a four-movement violin concerto if one accepts the equivalent to a Scherzo (marked Comodo) being a cheerful stroll and the finale a graceful ambling tune.
The remaining works are largely programmatic and here Saraste allows himself greater degrees of expressiveness. Tapiola is particularly gripping, and the suites are full of dramatic tension. One disappointment, however, lies in the popular Karelia Suite: after an excellent Overture the Intermezzo plods along with lumpy rhythm underpinning the main melody. The final March is strangely ineffective, running forward loosely, and sounding hurried even though the tempo is not of the swiftest.
En saga is also given a strange rhythm. The underlying pulse is an important feature, representing the dactylic meter of the words in the Kalevala, so there is no doubt which ‘saga’ Sibelius had in mind. It is surprising that this insistent pulse is smoothed out and is barely evident under the bold orchestra themes. There is occasional understatement of rhythm elsewhere but not in bold works such as Finlandia. Enormous power here; collectors may be reminded of Herbert von Karajan’s uncompromisingly dramatic approach.
All the tone poems are expounded with strength when necessary and insight where appropriate. The dark mystery of The Oceanides is subtly revealed and there is no problem about strong rhythm in Nightride and Sunrise. Pohjola’s Daughter is colourfully dramatised. One particular gem is the performance of King Christian II Suite. This fine composition is nowadays somewhat neglected, although the delightful Musette is sometimes given separately. Again we have a unifying approach and the five movements seem to become symphonic.
This is a generous selection – I could imagine Saraste giving a sensitive performance of Rakastava or a grand one of the extensive Pelléas and Mélisande, but this set represents a fine Sibelius treasury, and the thirty-year-old recording presents much exciting sound.