Sibelius: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No 2; Symphony No 3; Symphony No 4; Symphony No 5; Symphony No 6; Symphony No 7; The Tempest Suite No. 1; In Memoriam

COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No 2; Symphony No 3; Symphony No 4; Symphony No 5; Symphony No 6; Symphony No 7; The Tempest Suite No. 1; In Memoriam
PERFORMER: Danish National RSO/Leif Segerstam
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 7054(4)
Starting with the first suite from The Tempest, from its stark opening to its more rhythmically folksy elements (Sibelius never managing to shake off a Nordic view of Elizabethan England), Segerstam knows how to create a strong atmosphere (particularly in the Storm itself), though sometimes at the cost of diluting emotional content. Beecham’s magic in both suites still reigns supreme; though, having said that, the playing of the Danish Radio Orchestra in the ‘Berceuse’ and ‘Ariel’s Song’ is very lovely. Segerstam’s approach to In Memoriam (1909) is appropriately Mahlerian but also recalls the famous Chopin funeral march. Sibelius’s dirge has, unsurprisingly, never really caught on with the public but would do well at those televised Russian state funerals which at one time were alarmingly frequent.

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What audiences do love are the First, Second and Fifth symphonies, and in these three works in particular the playing is powerful. A few quibbles apart (for example, a close-miked clarinettist whose breathing is audible in the excellent solo which opens the First), these are highly satisfactory accounts. Segerstam takes liberties with tempi or rubato at the drop of a hat but encourages warm-blooded, full tone from his players at all times. What impresses in the Third Symphony is his pacing of the crescendo concluding the development in the first movement, and the unanimity of the string playing. In fact, apart from some occasionally spurious tuning in the woodwind chorus, the Third is the best of the set. Segerstam excels in warmth, expression and colour, and tends to avoid the austere, cold Finnish landscape. The opening of the Fourth and the slow movement of the Sixth are cases in point, but then the Sixth is a notoriously problematic work which has troubled even the greatest Sibelians such as Koussevitzky. The single-movement Seventh is played with its necessary nobility.

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The sound throughout is vivid, highlighting much of the detail, and the brass are reined in where necessary (often, when confronted by long sustained chords in Sibelius, they can let rip in frustration). This set should take its place with the best of those currently available. Christopher Fifield