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Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 5-7 (RPO/Hughes)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes (Rubicon)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Sibelius
Symphonies Nos 5-7
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
Rubicon RCD 1073   83:11 mins

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This third and final disc in Owain Arwel Hughes’s survey of all Sibelius’s numbered symphonies with the RPO opens with an impressive account of the Fifth – lacking only perhaps a little in visceral excitement. With his preference for steady tempos, Hughes paces the ongoing structure of the opening movement with a sure grasp, and a fine grading of the speed-up in its second half – even if he never quite reaches the dizzy momentum some versions attain in its final bars. He also finds weight and passion in the middle movement which many conductors tend to treat as a lighter intermezzo, and due majesty in the peroration of the finale. The RPO responds warmly in a St John’s Smith Square recording that nicely balances clarity and resonance.

For some reason – different orchestral seating; different placing of microphones? – the recording of the Sixth sounds more recessed and reverberant, with a fuzzing of detail in more complex textures. But Hughes also plods a bit in the opening movement, almost grinding to a halt in its coda. And, while he understands the strange, transition-like second movement better than many conductors, his accounts of the scherzo and finale are average. Something of the work’s radiant remoteness escapes him. Yet, against expectation, he gets a move-on in the opening pages of the Seventh – only to lapse into a rather humdrum scherzo after the work’s central climax. Again, the recorded sound is different: full, immediate but a bit clotted – though it must be conceded that Sibelius’s dense scoring here poses quite a few balance problems of its own.

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Bayan Northcott