Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 1 & 3; Rakastava; Symphonies Nos 4 & 5; Finlandia

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Exton
ALBUM TITLE: Sibelius
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1 & 3; Rakastava; Symphonies Nos 4 & 5; Finlandia
PERFORMER: Royal Stockholm PO/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: Symphonies Nos 1 & 3; Rakastava: OVCL-00279; Symphonies Nos 4 & 5; Finlandia: OVCL-00282 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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In the early 1980s Ashkenazy’s Decca Sibelius cycle came very close to top rating for its thoughtful, expressive interpretations and warmth of feeling. Many, though, also felt it lacked the dynamism and Northern atmosphere which distinguished rivals such as Karajan, and Sir Colin Davis in his first cycle. Nearly thirty years later Ashkenazy is recording another cycle for the Japanese label Exton, in much publicised state-of-the-art surround-sound. In these first releases it’s certainly striking, almost distracting at first. Even for SACD the sense of space is startling, putting a great deal of ‘air’ around the instruments without diminishing the immediacy. Moments like the First’s opening clarinet solo are beautifully focused. Hyped or not, this is closer to how a large concert hall really sounds than the artful stereo reconstructions we’re used to. But what about the actual performances? The answer is that they’re very fine, but a lot will depend on the listener’s taste. Ashkenazy’s actual timings are not extreme, but the impression is often slow-paced. In the First the opening movement’s grand Romantic climaxes build powerfully, the second opens warmly, but the pulsing scherzo sounds measured; and though the finale concludes with authentic grandeur, comparing conductors Sibelius approved of, including Karajan, makes Ashkenazy’s rubato seem overdone. The more classical Third feels short of atmosphere and tension in opening and final movements; the second is more effective, gently melancholic. For me the stark Fourth was the finest of Ashkenazy’s first cycle, and he shows the same rapport here, with a haunting, measured opening, a delicately detailed scherzo, a profoundly reflective third, and a vigorous fourth, with appropriate glockenspiel. Beside this the Fifth often seems flatter, slow in the opening, the andante over-extended, and the famous hammer-blows fall rather tamely. The couplings are good but not exceptional. These remain performances of real stature, and those who like Sibelius with a warmer, Slavic slant need not hesitate. Those who prefer the fresher bite of Baltic air can turn to other fine interpreters – some, like Davis, splendid bargains. But for SACD listeners the sound itself is a terrific draw. Michael Scott Rohan