Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 1 & 4
Another instalment in Osmo Vänskä’s next-generation Sibelius cycle, turning from the poetic Lahti orchestra to the full-blooded Minnesota sound. And full-blooded the First certainly is; its first movement fairly sweeps one away with its youthful energy, intensified by the spacious SACD sound. As with Vänskä’s 1997 Lahti recording, this is much closer than usual to Sibelius’s metronome marking. It’s worth remembering that this is already quite a mature work, the composer having boiled off his youthful exuberance in Kullervo and other early pieces; the First exhibits a strong sense of form and deeply felt detail.
This becomes more evident in Vänskä’s beautifully measured second movement, with some fine woodwind playing in those eerie wind-whirling figures, and the Minnesota’s rich but restrained brass. The third movement is distinctly taut and sinewy, less Tchaikovskian than some, but the finale’s contrasting passages of onrush and stately grandeur reach a wonderfully warm, mellow resolution.
The Fourth’s proverbial bleakness, which confused and disturbed audiences after the vigour of its three predecessors, has been said to reflect many things – the composer’s brush with cancer, his financial difficulties, his dislike of overblown contemporary music, even, via its recurring tritone motif, St Paul’s denials of Christ. Its primary inspiration, though, was a holiday in the beautiful Koli mountain region, and the vigour and detail Vänskä and the Minnesota bring to it certainly suggests the open air.
Altogether, Vänskä’s new interpretations, sturdy and intense rather than richly Romantic, offer persuasive alternatives in a crowded market.
Michael Scott Rohan