Recorded on various dates during last year in Oslo’s Konserthus, Sibelius’s magnificent Seven Symphonies are arranged in numerical order across the four CDs, an invitation to listen that way – from the expanse of the first two works to the concentration of the final one.
Symphonies One & Two. Klaus Mäkelä revels in the elemental rawness of No.1 and is flexible with pacing (too much at times) if strong on atmosphere, suspense, detail, and romantic gestures, tenderly so, especially at the beginning of the second movement. Here is vivid storytelling (although no programme is specified) … but the timpani disappoint, not as clinically clean as needed at times, and anyway these instruments are backwardly placed in a big reverberant acoustic. For all that Mäkelä has a distinctive view of this Symphony – certain balances and blends confirm this – ultimately the performance comes across as too vivid, relentlessly so. However, the Second Symphony is excellent and with far fewer contrivances (to be different) than infiltrated No.1. Timpani remains a problem, however, not least in their soft punctuation during the first movement – harder sticks would have helped, and for which Ormandy’s Philadelphia version for RCA sets the standard. I must confess to being overwhelmed by the broad and brassy ultimate coda, but, in both works, is the quiet playing quiet enough (?) – I must answer in the negative – although Mäkelä is to be congratulated for not speeding through either Scherzo while also investing an exciting momentum.
Symphonies Three & Four. The former’s outer movements enjoy an energy that pulsates and galvanises; and, in the middle movement, Mäkelä, like Kajanus and Colin Davis, seemingly goes against the tempo marking of Andante con moto quasi allegretto, yet, like the aforementioned maestros, ensures that a dignified/slow-burn approach is the convincing way. The dark/tragic Symphony 4 is of bitter attack, intensity and laments, Mäkelä offering no respite to the music’s strangeness, brooding and bleakness, an uncompromising presentation of emotional conflict – no way out, and no reduction of pace in the ultimate measures so as to really underline Sibelius’s trapped soul. I wish Mälelä had opted for tubular bells in the Finale rather than glockenspiel (Sibelius writes “Glocken” in the score – German for bells or an abbreviation for glockenspiel?). Okay, he confirmed the latter to Leslie Heward, but the icier former would have fitted Mäkelä’s disturbing view of this extraordinary work. If there’s a downside, it’s the stridency of the sound, especially the brass, for which I am inclined to blame the venue, which seems to bolster and colour what is being played within it.
Symphonies Five & Six. With #5 we enter a world of wonderment. In short, this is a great performance, close to being on a Celibidachian scale, transitions handled masterfully, the whole opened-up in terms of reach and clarity. A magnetic listen. Symphony 6 is less clear-cut, quite regimented, even pedestrian, if certainly the “cold water” Sibelius spoke of, although there’s no lack of expression when really needed.
Symphony 7, Tapiola, Fragments. The single-movement No.7 is given an appropriately all-encompassing reading, maybe a tad cautious if heading to momentous (trombone) staging-posts and upheaval with surety. I must say that some muddy timpani in places (even on headphones) is irksome, although they are well in the aural picture for Tapiola – different players? – given a striking outing that paints an inhospitable landscape inhabited by malevolent beings; piccolo skirls are quite ghoulish (there’s a link to listen below). Tapiola is regarded by some as an unofficial Eighth Symphony, so it’s good to have three Fragments, reconstructed by Timo Virtanen (previously recorded by John Storgårds for Chandos), that may be ideas for that work.
Throughout, the Oslo Philharmonic plays with notable/seasoned dedication, boldness and finesse for its Finnish conductor, and although there are some reservations, this release can be recommended enthusiastically and I, for one, will keep this set by me for Symphonies 2, 3, 4 & 5, and Tapiola. Decca 485 2256 [4 CDs].
If you’d like to listen to Tapiola, complete, here’s a link:
It’s one of the highlights of Klaus’s Sibelius set. Colin
Thanks Col. I have the set on order so this acts as an hors d’oeuvres.
What an hors d’oeuvres!!! One of the most influential works of the 20th century now and for always.
I am dighted to read your review Col.
We agree on most if not all areas of interpretation except perhaps in No 2 where I feel Makela makes everything too grandeloquent. The first movement is too slow and lacks urgency and tension at this pace.
All the early Finns race through the development like a bat out of hell.
Sure this was Sibelius’s intention.
Listen to the Jarnefelt view issued recently by the UK Sibelius Society.
Otherwise we are two peas in a pod on all else!!!