WORKS: Finlandia; Karelia Suite; Pohjola’s Daughters; The Swan of Tuonela
PERFORMER: Gothenburg SO/Neeme Jarvi
CATALOGUE NO: CD 610 DDD
Start with the more energetic or straightforward music on these discs, and you’ll probably be impressed. The Sibelius Encore disc, which contains ‘lollipops’ such as the Valse triste, is full of enjoyable things (although this most gloomy and meditative composer would have hated the very idea of it). The Italianate grace of the Canzonettais winningly conveyed, as is the sunny optimism of the Karelia Suite.
But turn to the symphonies and you’re aware of something missing. Take the very first bars of the Fourth Symphony; these should be a smooth descent into calm after the grinding intensity of the first notes, followed by a remote, inward cello solo. Here the descent is bumpy, and there’s no blend in the orchestral sound. And when the cello enters, it seems altogether too beefy and extrovert. Compare the opening of the recent version by Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony, which has just the right sense of brooding mystery. ‘Extrovert’ is a word that applies generally to the disc; dynamic contrasts and tempo fluctuations tend to be overdone. This can work well in the short term. The beginning of the finale to the Fifth Symphony is wonderfully exciting, but the big, swinging brass theme, which should be ‘pochettino piu largo’ (a tiny bit slower) is taken too slowly; we lose the all-important sense of unity between the fast and slow sections. The playing is generally good, apart from an occasional sourness in the wind tuning — as at the beginning of this same symphony, a deceptively difficult passage. But overall the set is not a serious contender for the best Sibelius cycle. Ivan Hewett