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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899)
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1904–1907)
Finlandia Op. 26 (1899–1900)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901) [44.10]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1911) [35.48]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat Op. 82 (1914) [31.14]
Karelia Suite Op. 11 (1893) [14.55]
Pohjola’s Daughter Op. 49 (1906) [11.51]
The Bard Op. 64 (1913) [7.58]
Symphony No. 6 (1923) [27.01]
Symphony No. 7 (1924) [21.19]
Tapiola (1926) [15.42]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7-12 Jan 2002 (CD1), 29 May - 1 June 2000 (CD2), 17-19 Apr 2001 (CD3), 6-8 Jan 2003 (CD4)
WARNER ERATO 2564 60294-2 [4 CDs: 75.15+80.00+66.35+64.22]


Sakari Oramo has been forging a dazzling reputation for himself and for the CBSO since his appointment as Principal Conductor and subsequently Music Director in Birmingham about three years ago. Whoever made the Birmingham choice chose well.

Oramo’s programming and interpretations display an adrenaline factor sadly absent from the Hallé's current seasons, beginning to leach away from the RLPO, and only sustained with equal panache by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. The London orchestras have shown little of these qualities. We will look back on these days as a golden era comparable with Rozhdestvensky's time with the BBCSO in the early eighties and Järvi's in the late eighties and early nineties with the RSNO. As one example of Oramo’s approach to repertoire, the coming season includes three major works (Mirages, Lyra Celtica, Dynamic Triptych) by John Foulds - surely confirmation of persistent rumours that there will be an Ondine CD of this visionary music. In one of his early seasons he conducted Constant Lambert's large-scale choral/orchestral classic, Summer's Last Will and Testament. This happened at a time when seemingly no-one else had the determination or percipience to tackle the work ... not since isolated performances by Norman del Mar and Vernon Handley during the 1980s.

I digress, as ever. To the task in hand … The world seems to be awash with Sibelius cycles many of which have been reviewed here. Vänskä (Bis), Ashkenazy (Decca), Berglund (Bournemouth, EMI) and Karajan/Kamu (DG Trio), to take four examples, are all recommendable. Many of the others have individual performances that are outstanding but are less successful across the board - Barbirolli (EMI), Maazel/Pittsburgh (Sony), Sakari (Naxos) and Abravanel (Vanguard). I have not heard Ehrling, Berglund (Chamber Orchestra of Europe - better than promising if the extracts on a recent Finlandia compilation are anything to go by), Rattle (CBSO again), Leaper, Saraste, Segerstam, Gibson or Watanabe so I cannot yet give a comprehensive comparative overview.

Oramo's Sixth stands at the extremes of interpretation and will remorselessly hold your attention. For me the Sixth is a work of bleached radiance; the exemplar being the Karajan's version (Trio on DG). The work has also come to be thought of as slowly blooming with Bernstein's CBS/Sony recording being the best illustration of that tendency. Oramo has none of this. The symphony is over for him in just over 27 minutes. His vision is driven, heated, impetuous, passionate, even splenetic in a way I do not recall hearing before. Oramo might almost be another Mravinsky in the belligerent impetus with which he infuses Sibelius's pages. The fourth movement catches the rolling stormy magic of the piece and links to the Seventh Symphony. It works extremely well. Any Sibelian must hear this version.

I mentioned Mravinsky earlier; how tragic that he never recorded any other Sibelius apart from the Seventh and Tuonela. Oramo does not achieve and probably never set out to achieve the brazen indomitable quality of Mravinsky's Seventh (BMG-Melodiya, Moscow, 1965). However he too makes his mark with an interpretation that is intense, laden with sustained valedictory sentiment and epic in reach. It does not for me supplant Ormandy (Sony) or Mravinsky(BMG-Melodiya) but it is a fine reading.

The Seventh has its driven impetuous moments where you are conscious of an urgency to move forward but this is as nothing to Oramo's way with Tapiola. The opening pages are soaked with accelerant and goaded forward in a way you may find startling. You might think such 'impatience' would damage the music. Not at all. This is the equivalent of the 1943 Berlin Furtwängler version of a much earlier Sibelius tone poem, En Saga.

Recording excellence is taken for granted these days but the standards achieved here by the Erato team (Tim Oldham was the producer) are exemplary. The sense of depth and honed refinement is notable in the quietest moments - for example at 3.34 in the second movement of the First Symphony and in the abrasive rasp of the trombones in the finale. The reading of the First is full of imaginative touches without the startling drive we hear in Oramo’s Sixth. This is excellent but not overwhelming; for that you need to track down Barbirolli’s First for the boiling intensity he found for his Hallé recording in the 1960s (the Barbirolli complete set on EMI Classics).

Emulating the famous Okko Kamu coupling (DG) the disc-partner to Oramo’s First is the Third Symphony. Here the rhythmic cells are chiselled, tactile and, in the finale, sturdy and robust. Oramo keeps things taut (5.46 I, tr.5) but slows things drastically for a second movement that is perhaps too still for its own good. Nevertheless this leaves blue sky clear for some of the most enchanting woodwind playing - especially the flute and clarinet. Hot on the heels of the Third comes a fine Finlandia in which the brass and trumpets ring out with burnished conviction (4.33). This may not be as inky-black as Horst Stein’s version with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on Decca but it is excellent.

In the Fifth the visceral accelerating pulse at 7.33 is well done. In fact one of Oramo’s strengths is what I can only call ‘micro’ acceleration and deceleration. The smallest speed re-contourings are lovingly calculated. The grunting attack of the double basses is captured as never before in the finale. Try sampling at 2.30 and listen to that sound: half grunt and half legno rattle. Then move on to 4.12. The magical spatial sense returns again at 5.10 with the spectral ostinato and the clarinet calling over the top. Oramo and the Brummies are to be venerated for the caressing tenderness they achieve in the epic stride of the finale. And, if you are wondering, every one of those offbeat hammer blows at the end has a precise and gripping ‘whump’. This is a version of the Fifth to live with long-term - very satisfying.

After the Fifth come three shorter though not necessarily slighter pieces. The Karelia goes with a hop, a jump and a legato serenading swing. Pohjola’s Daughter is a symphony in microcosm. Its emotive impact and feeling of logical progression has always left me placing it with compact symphonies such as Brian 22, Alwyn 5 and most of all with Rubbra 11. This is of course one of Sibelius’s Kalevala fantasies. Oramo does it wonderfully well with many telling details recreated along the way. These include a squat and soulful cello solo at the start, tightened and tautly-sprung ostinati, boisterously rolled horns and the way he gets the violins to sing out at 2.58. Then there is the strangled brat of a rattle of the horns at 5.09, his tocsin-accented fast-chanting strings at 7.03, the magnificence of the horns (like a certain Holstian Jupiter) at the climax of the piece and an unapologetic nobility (which had me musing on what an Oramo-conducted Elgar 2 would sound like). If the Horst Stein version (Decca Weekend Classics and also in a Decca twofer) remains my preference Oramo is in the very top rank alongside Bernstein (Sony), Sinaisky (Saison Russe) and the tempestuous Boult (Omega).

The drama quotient drops for the minimalist grace of The Bard - effectively a gentle mood piece for harp and orchestra delivered pretty much at p-ppp throughout. It is enigmatic and by no means light or inconsequential music. A pity that we could not also have had Oramo’s Luonnotar.

The disc of the Second and Fourth Symphonies is full. At 7.19 in the first movement the melodic line of the French Horn is not blurred, being heard for the first time. The definition of the instruments is excellent. This seems to be just as much about Oramo’s micro-managed choices as about technical recording judgements. More of this can be sampled at the start of the Vivacissimo (III) where every terraced gesture registers with grace and impact. Much the same can be heard with the little climactic stress at the end of the brass oration at 00.29. That small loudening accentuation makes all the difference. The racing calls at 6.33 I have never heard done in that way before - certainly does it for me! If there are hard-hearted doubters they should be converted by the final few moments which are overwhelming not simply in sheer volume but in the way Oramo carries all before him in a deliberate tidal wave of rollingly magnificent tone. Wow! - An illiterate reaction but I can’t put it more succinctly than that. The Fourth Symphony is good with the recording presenting this most caustic and stark of the symphonies in a highly presentable light and with a dazzling freshness in the finale.

I am assured that the Szell/Cleveland version (live in Tokyo in 1970) is the version of the Second Symphony to have but, of the ones I know, I can recommend strongly this Oramo/Erato as well as Beecham’s rollicking live version at the RFH (1954) with the BBCSO, Ormandy’s version on Sony and of course Barbirolli’s on Chesky.

Over the years some superb recorded performances have come out of Birmingham. I can think of the Hugo Rignold recording of Bliss’s John Blow Meditations (an underestimated masterwork if ever there was one) and Music for Strings both forever doomed to Lyrita vinyldom, Frémaux’s reign including still unmatched voluptuary versions of the Walton Coronation marches, Gloria and Te Deum (EMI Classics) and some superbly-defined Ravel, Addison’s march A Bridge Too Far (conducted by Marcus Dods) and Arnold conducting his own Fifth Symphony. This set surely belongs in that company and I hope that Warner-Erato will not let the Oramo-CBSO connection slip through their fingers.

If you like your Sibelius served ablaze rather than cool then Oramo is certainly the man for you. If Mravinsky is your idol in the Tchaikovsky Fourth, Ormandy in Harris 7, Bernstein in Randall Thompson 2, Gerhardt in Hanson 2, Kondrashin in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Svetlanov in Manfred or Beecham in Sibelius 2 then you are likely to want to add this Erato set to your hall of fame. Magnificent!

Rob Barnett

John Phillips has also listened to this set

This set of Sibelius Symphonies and Tone Poems is to be welcomed, albeit into a very overcrowded and very well served market. Over the past few years there have been released complete cycles of these works from Paavo Berglund, Colin Davis, Neeme Järvi, Osmo Vänskä, and Oramo’s predecessor in Birmingham, Simon Rattle. Each has its strong points, but none, including the current set, is to be preferred over selecting individual performances in the current catalogue. Before discussing those, a few words about the current set. It is as well played as any, such is the rapport Oramo has with his orchestra. Listening to all the hype about the standards achieved with the CBSO I can hear no falling off in playing quality, indeed I detect a warming up of the sound, which is a decided advantage. There is also no problem with the recording, right up there with the market leaders.

The acoustic of the Birmingham’s Symphony Hall has much to do with this. That said, the Rattle recordings do not sound quite as fine, good though they are (not all of these were recorded in Symphony Hall anyway).

The first disc in the set with symphonies 1 and 3 together with Finlandia has been praised in the music press. However I must confess that I find the extremely slow tempo for the second movement of the Third Symphony a decided drawback – indeed at one or two places it almost grinds to an absolute halt. No. 1 is very good with a lively third movement which enhances this work. Finlandia is an excellent fill up for these early symphonies but the effect of Karajan (DG) late 1960s performance is not eclipsed.

The second disc in the set combines symphonies 2 and 4 and very good performances they are too. In No. 4 the string tone is very well nourished and sounds fine, without eclipsing earlier versions. I have also heard higher levels of tension in this symphony which I would have liked to hear here. Maybe in a few years with a bit more experience under his belt, Oramo may re-record these symphonies to achieve this.

The third disc offers only one symphony, No. 5. This again is very fine and will satisfy all but the most fastidious collector of Sibelius symphonies. As fill-ups we have the Karelia Suite, Pohjola’s Daughter, and The Bard which are all excellent. It is the fill-up for the last disc which is absolutely superb, as good as any in the catalogue. This Tapiola can stand equally with the finest in the catalogue and whilst not making the case for purchasing all four discs in this mid-price set, gives a very good incentive.

I said at the outset of this review that separate discs would make up a better collection, but I can also say, that unless you are able to put up with less than perfect recordings, this solution would not be as attractive as the current set.

For No. 1, I would recommend Anthony Collins with the LSO in mono on Beulah, (first choice) with Lorin Maazel VPO on Decca, and an equally fine disc on IMG/EMI of Stokowski’s National Philharmonic coming a close second.

No. 2 has only one performance for me, and that is Pierre Monteux and the LSO on Decca. If you cannot lay your hands on that, then George Szell and the Concertgebouw on Philips runs this a very close second. For No. 3, the choice must go to the early Anthony Collins LSO recording on Beulah.

By the time we reach 4, 5 and 6, we are including much better sound recordings. Here, I would recommend the late 1960s recordings on DG by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. These have a majesty that I find quite missing in other recordings – for example try the opening of No. 4 and the finale of No. 5 to hear genuine Sibelian tension – quite marvellous.

For No. 7, I would go for the Maazel VPO performance on Decca. This is a little raw in sound quality, but has incomparable tension and a sense of growth, which no other performance I have heard even comes near.

So, there you are – Oramo is fine for a one conductor set of the Sibelius symphonies but there is more to be found. Unfortunately, none of these others have recorded a complete cycle which attains the peaks established by these discs. Also the cost would be much higher forcing you to purchase at least five discs with duplications. In addition, none of the individual recommendations has a recording quality anywhere near that of the Erato release. Indeed it is better than most of the other complete sets. It comes with my highest recommendation for this layout.

John Phillips

see also separate issue reviews

Jean SIBELIUS (1865 - 1957) Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899) Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1904–1907) Finlandia Op. 26 (1899–1900) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo.Rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7, 11, 12 January 2002. ERATO 0927 43500 2 [75.00]. [JPh]

For a modern performance of these works, the current disc is excellent, whilst not being absolutely unmissable. … see Full Review

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Karelia Suite, Pohjola's Daughter, The Bard City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo Recorded 17-19 April 2001, Symphony Hall, Birmingham ERATO 8573-85822-2 [66.29] [CA]

What stands out is Oramo's ability to breathe new life into familiar music. A deeply considered view of the music that indicates this CD that will be off the shelf regularly. ... see Full Review

RECORDING OF THE MONTH Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No. 6 (1923) [27.01] Symphony No. 7 (1924) [21.19] Tapiola (1926) [15.42] City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo rec. Birmingham Symphony Hall, 6-8 Jan 2003 WARNER ERATO 0927 49144 2 [64.22] [RB]

If you like your Sibelius served ablaze rather than cool then Oramo is certainly the man for you. I loved this. I think you will too. Magnificent ... see Full Review

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