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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 (1901) [42:38]
Karelia Suite (1893) [15:20]
Swan of Tuonela (1893) [9:47]
London Symphony Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras (Karelia)
rec. Abbey Road, 1988 (Symphony; Swan); CTS, London, 1994 (Karelia). DDD
first issued on Pickwick IMP Classics PCD92
REGIS RRC1220 [68:00]

Mackerras and Dvořák or Janáček or Martinů or Mozart - now those are familiar 'teams'; Mackerras and Sibelius much less so. Yet here we are revisiting, at Regis's irresistible price, an IMP collection first issued during the mid-1990s.

In fact his fleet-footed Sibelius 2 works very well though it lacks the full-on incendiary qualities of Barbirolli (RPO on Chesky) or the uproariously live Beecham (BBC Legends). Mackerras keeps things moving, ever pressing forward. Yet he does not scout over the tenderness to be heard in the breathy whispered effervescence of the second movement. The gruff and mordant brass are well put across to the listener in the finale. Such is the transparency of the recording that instrumental lines, too easily lost in a generalised miasma in other versions, can here be heard clearly. Only in the cumulative fortissimo weight of the final pages is some of the transparency lost. This is an urgently communicative performance strengthened by the waxing opulence of the LSO strings.

The RPO are Mackerras's partners for the Karelia Suite which is good rather than striking. Both Okko Kamu (DG) and Collins (Beulah) have projected greater subtlety, frisson and tension in the brooding Intermezzo. The Alla marcia is graciously pointed and is given a beaming performance.

Christine Pendrill's honey-toned cor anglais is with the LSO as Mackerras's 'swan' in the Swan of Tuonela. I must also single out the gaunt timpani ostinato - a metaphor for the deathly realm of Tuonela; it provides punctuation and continuity for this magical piece. For all that this is an early work from the 1890s the string writing looks forward two decades to the shivering gleam of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies. There are many excellent Swans but I recommend Ormandy on EMI, Mravinsky's on BMG-Melodiya and Scribendum and the even more atmospherically potent version by Ole Schmidt on Regis RRC 1216.

James Murray does good service with the notes which places these early works in the context of Finnish nationalism, the championing of the music by Kajanus and Sibelius finding of his own voice.

Not quite up there with Regis's classic Sibelius/Schmidt collection on RRC 1216 (which has Mackerras's Finlandia as a make-weight - review) but not far behind. A good bargain price collection with an uncloying and quick-pulsed Sibelius 2 as well as an intriguing Swan of Tuonela.

Rob Barnett



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