sibelius symphonies 645

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1901-02)
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1915-19)
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 (1906)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Santtu-Matias Rouvali
rec. 2018/19, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden

In my experience, Santtu-Matias Rouvali already has an excellent track record both live and in the studio. Both Jim Westhead (review) and Brian Wilson (review) strongly recommended his Sibelius First Symphony and I similarly lauded his Second Symphony (review), both with the same orchestra, venue and label as here – and Brian included it in his 2020 Retrospective as a “Recording of the Year”. I am delighted to report that the standard of performances in this latest release in the series is every bit as enticing. Furthermore the sound engineering is stunning; as wide, rich yet detailed and finely balanced a perspective as one could wish.

The Third Symphony is an odd, quirky piece; for a start, it has only three movements of equal length (although the last is really two movements combined) and it grapples constantly with the challenge of blending contrasting themes and ideas, but Rouvali has the measure of the work and succeeds triumphantly in binding them together. Tension is retained throughout the first movement, the growling lower strings and woodwind underpinning the scurrying main theme which rises magnificently to the climax seven minutes in and concludes in the typically Sibelian sunset glow of the horn chorale and resolution via two major chords. The horns and double basses are especially impressive here but every section of the orchestra excels; this is thrilling playing.

The lilting second movement is perfectly paced – some performances make too much of a meal of it and miss the inner spring by ignoring the con moto instruction – and I love the way how at 8:10  he controls the gradual accelerando in the reprise of the melody after the pizzicato and flute interlude, guiding and moulding it sensitively to the end.

The finale is the most fragmented of the three movements; the beauty of the orchestra playing and the carefully graduated impetus of Rouvali’s conducting help keep it unified. He does not let the pace slacken until half way through with the appearance of another typical Sibelian trope when the chorale breaks into the scherzo and time stands still a spell, before momentum is regained. Rouvali again displays his mastery of pacing, gradually applying torque and driving on to achieve a grand conclusion.

My favourite version hitherto has been the old Kamu recording from Helsinki on DG but this surpasses that in terms of both sonics and execution; it is considerably more vivacious . What a pity that great champion of Sibelius’ music, Herbert von Karajan, never recorded the Third.

The opening of the Fifth is strong and monitory, promising much drama; the diminuendo on the swinging “peal of bells”, the brass calls to arms, the ominous muttering on the strings, the bassoon’s lament, crescendo before the chorale, are all beautifully executed – this is sensitive, superlative Sibelius and the eight minutes before the long-anticipated chordal outburst succeeded by the final galloping, “equestrian” section seem to fly by.

After such exhilaration, the rustic, pizzicato charms of the Andante con moto offer a delightful contrast. Again, Rouvali cunningly moulds its phrasing and dynamics being unafraid to indulge its swooning, lyrical sections and the immediacy of the sound here is especially striking; I feel as if I am in the front row of a concert hall, such is the detail. The finale goes off like a rocket at an insanely fast speed – objectively too fast, yet the strings of the Gothenburg SO keep up and it’s another electrifying ride. The Big Tune arrives and is grand beyond measure and the ensuing tremolando passages are again startlingly swift and adept. Karajanesque grandeur informs the climax and the famous silences in the last bars are ideally gauged.

After such riches, the bonus of Pohjola’s Daughter is calculated to spoil the listener. Its gloomy, fate-filled character makes an interesting coda to the glories of the preceding two symphonies but those motivic and motoric elements we readily associate with Sibelius are very much to the fore and the rendition showcases the range of colours this orchestra so adroitly commands. The two flutes are particularly melodic and the sonority of the orchestra imparts a stature to this piece that I had not previously registered.

There aren’t so many recommendable recordings offering this combination of symphonies on a single CD. Back in 2007, Jonathan Woolf gave a qualified welcome to that by Segerstam (review) and there are recordings by Colin Davis with the LSO and Jansons in Oslo ; here, however, not only are we given superlative performances of two symphonies, but there is the bonus of the splendidly played tone poem.

The very brevity of Sibelius’ symphonies always reminds me that they are the musical equivalent of Jane Austen’s definition of the ideal visit in Emma: “ – perfect, in being much too short.” Certainly under Rouvali and his superb Gothenburg orchestra, these works could never outstay their welcome. Having missed the boat for 2022, this will undoubtedly be the first addition to my new list of Records of the Year.

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Robert Cummings (November 2022)

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