Sibelius: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 7

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 7
PERFORMER: San Francisco SO/Herbert Blomstedt
CATALOGUE NO: 444 541-2 DDD
The combination of Sibelius’s first and last numbered symphonies is intelligent, pointing to how far this radical composer travelled on his symphonic journey from the epic, four-movement structure of the First to the hugely original, single-movement organism which is the Seventh. Herbert Blomstedt is a solid conductor rather than an impassioned one, but his kind of musician can suit Sibelius rather well. He brings out, for instance, the influence in the First Symphony of Bruckner, manifest in its rich timbres, contrasted abruptly, and in Sibelius’s tendency to go from one section straight to the next without worrying about such niceties as subtle transitions. I also like Blomstedt’s unhurried manner. The music is allowed to unfold at its own pace, scarcely sounding as though it has been interpreted at all, though clearly Blomstedt has given careful thought to conveying a sense of striving, unity and final attainment, especially in the sometimes enigmatic but here marvellously logical and inspiring Seventh.

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What I do miss, however, is a measure of clarity in the sound of the San Francisco Symphony. The recording, made in Davies Symphony Hall, is very boomy, bottom heavy and muffled. But in any case Sibelius’s tendency to score for woodwinds in choirs and in the dense middle of their register means that definition is hard to obtain in acoustics far more equally balanced than those of this location. And it is better, perhaps, that the ear should strain for detail than the sacrifice be made of imposing a false recording perspective. Stephen Pettitt