Simon Rattle Conducts Sibelius’s Symphonies Nos 1-7

Performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.

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COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Berliner Philharmoniker
ALBUM TITLE: Sibelius
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-7
PERFORMER: Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: BPHR 150071 ( 4 discs + 1 Pure audio blu-ray + 1 video blu-ray)

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Simon Rattle has undoubtedly prepared his Berlin Philharmonic to the highest level for this Sibelius project, and the results are rarely less than impressive. But the great this month is the enemy of the very good: with Okko Kamu and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (see p76) I learn more about Sibelius; here, I feel the conductor’s always nudging me and saying ‘doesn’t the orchestra sound glorious’?

It certainly does, and there’s no implication that the First Symphony is more superficial than the rest if I say that it’s the unqualified success here for that reason. The youthful impetus behind the wealth of ideas is always felt; the dewy-eyed beauty of so much of the instrumentation can be breathtaking, above all in that magical slow-movement transition to A flat and the horn melody against violins and harp. The harpist, wonderful Marie-Pierre Langlamet, has just the right degree of recorded spotlight in the finale, and graces the only other symphony in which she has a role, the Sixth, which flows beguilingly but is bracketed by string hymns which feel just a little bit stiff.

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Smudges creep in during the later stages of slow movement and finale in the Second – though the ‘Don Juan and Stone Guest’ atmosphere of the former is certainly evocative. There’s something too deliberate about the introduction of the noble peroration in the Third’s finale, and too little rhythmic lift in its counterpart at the end of a beautifully phrased but, for me, unmoving Fourth; the dance needs to be livelier to make the denouement truly shocking. Rattle is at his best in the grandeurs of the Fifth’s outer movement and the Seventh, which gleams in the superb Philharmonie recording and registers every one of Sibelius’s subtle dynamics – though as throughout, every ‘little bit faster’ or ‘little bit slower’ feels not quite organic. Handsome presentation, awkward for storage, features a fine painting by Jorma Puranen on the cover, booklet essays that are a little self-regarding, Blu-ray sound and vision, including an interview where, as often, the conductor is perceptive but unspontaneous. David Nice