Sakari patently loves this music as his way with the
end of the second movement of the First Symphony shows. Many smaller
details register with finely calculated compulsion. He has the benefit
of a Nordic orchestra and the clear-eyed transparency of Naxos's most
natural recording. The music is imbued with vitality - the vibration
and the icy quickening of the best Sibelius interpretations.
The approach is, ironically, less impetuous in the
First Symphony. Here Naxos could not be accused of snatching for cheap
effects. Sakari does not go for the jugular of quick excitement. He
takes the more considered line. While he sets a fastish trembling pace
for the scherzo he is no match for the headlong passion of Barbirolli
and the Hallé or Anthony Collins and the LSO on a mono Beulah
(the latter now deleted).
Interestingly the engineer in the case of the First
Symphony set out to achieve a natural concert hall balance. As a result
the hushed pppp strings of the first bars are almost silent and
when you compensate you soon find that the volume is too loud for unintimidating
listening in even the ff episodes. This seems specific to the
First. I notice that there are five different engineers for the Iceland
The Third Symphony (a neglected gem as unaccountably
neglected as the Sixth) shares the same platter as the First but this
is a different Sakari and the mike placement and balance is also in
contrast with that for the First. Where, for the First, Naxos adopted
a completely unassertive balance, the Third gets the close-up treatment,
a virile rhythmic jolt and the benefit of the buzz and burr of the string
section. This is an icily abrasive contender in anyone's 'critic's choice'
for the work.
Much the same can be said of Kullervo though
here the conductor is Jorma Panula and forces are recorded in Turku.
He is ably abetted by two strong soloists and one of Finland's leading
male voice choirs.
After the heaviness of the Colin Davis Boston symphony
Fifth and Seventh the lilt and splash of the Icelandic 'take' on Sibelius
brings us back to true north. Sakari's Sixth has similar virtues.
The Tempest suites are (the Suite 1 - The Storm
excepted) light Sibelius. This is grace personified making for refined
light music to satisfy the finest sensibility - not a shred of kitsch.
Sorbets and sweetmeats between main courses.
As acoustics go the Reykjavik concert hall does not
have the colossal Speer-like dimensions of the Symphony Hall, Boston
or the lamented and long ago rubble-reduced Kingsway Hall, London. The
Iceland Symphony is not a plush luxurious instrument but what it lacks
in sleek affluence it compensates for in clarity of texture and character.
The packaging of the White Box series appeals to me.
Satisfyingly, while the white design approach is unassertive, its very
understatement implies integrity. This is the same attitude that prompts
conductors to hold the composer's score up for appreciative audiences
rather than basking in baton-wielding adulation.
Inside the sturdy little cardboard box in matte white
each disc is housed in a light white paper and cellophane envelope.
The notes, by HNH regular, Keith Anderson, give you
the picture concisely. The chronology provided is a rather good inspiration
helping place the symphonies in their political and artistic timeline.
We have become hardened to budget lines saving cash by omitting texts.
Naxos provide the side-by-side Finnish and English for Kullervo.
By the way the notes are in English only.
The Panula Kullervo remains in the shadow of
Berglund's pioneering early 1970s EMI recording with the Bournemouth
SO. The Berglund (not to be confused with the inferior later version
(once accessible on EMI Matrix) is now available on a two disc
medium price set and even cheaper, on a per disc basis, as part of the
complete symphonies with the Helsinki Philharmonic. There are a host
of Kullervos now with the Sony being amongst the best of the
modern DDD recordings. None however trounces the first EMI Berglund
The price is very low: five Naxos CDs for the price
of four and a much more economic use of your shelf space. I foresee
these White Boxes doing exceptionally well.