Sibelius: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3
PERFORMER: Iceland SO/Petri Sakari
CATALOGUE NO: 8.554102
The beginning of the First Symphony tells us straight away what we’re in for: the clarinet solo is plangent and makes no concessions to sensuality. Sibelius isn’t a sensuous composer, even in this Tchaikovsky-influenced work, so that’s good, but when the strings enter, there needs to be more body, not to create a lush bed of sound, but to give the music muscle. Sakari is obviously more at home with the more conventionally Romantic moments in the music, and indulges them by pulling the tempi around. The danger is that trying to be too ‘expressive’ can distort tempo relationships and rob the music of structural coherence. Osmo Vänskä, in his recordings with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, showed that if you believe in Sibelius’s precise directions, the music works on its own terms. What is good to hear on this Naxos CD is an orchestral sound that isn’t wrung dry of any individual character: the woodwind tuning may not be perfect, and the brass may become coarse at climaxes, but better that than an anonymous smoothness. There are places where more bite would be welcome: the scherzo of the First Symphony must be as sharp as a knife to make its effect, and here it’s a bit soggy. On the other hand, the tight playing in the first movement of the Third Symphony shows what the performers can do, even if ensemble slips later on. Recordings are good, if a little over-resonant, but the benchmark must be Vänskä: accurate, committed and superbly recorded. To get both symphonies means buying two discs at full price, but it’s worth it, and you’ll end up with the Second and Fourth Symphonies as well. Martin Cotton