> Sibelius Symphonies - Naxos White Box [RB]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Complete Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 (1899) [37.56]
Symphony No. 2 (1902) [44.21]
Symphony No. 3 (1907) [29.01]
Symphony No. 4 (1911) [37.32]
Symphony No. 5 (1919) [31.08]
Symphony No. 6 (1923) [30.22]
Symphony No. 7 (1924) [22.45]
Kullervo Symphony (1899) [72.34]
Tempest Suite No. 1 (1925) [23.24]
Tempest Suite No. 2 (1925) [18.10]
Iceland SO/Petri Sakari (apart from Kullervo)
Johanna Rusanen (sop); Esa Ruutunen (bar); Laulun Ystavet Male Choir/Turku PO/Jorma Panula (Kullervo)
rec Syms 1-3 Nov 1996 - Feb 1997, Universiy Hall, Reykjavik
rec Syms 4-7 Nov 1997 - Mar 2000, Concert Hall, Reykjavik
rec Kullervo, June 1996, Turku Concert Hall, Finland
NAXOS WHITE BOX 8.505179 [5 hours 58mins]

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 recordings.

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 recording.

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.

Rob Barnett

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