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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]

Oramo has been forging a dazzling reputation for himself and for Birmingham since his appointment as Music Director there five years ago. His programming and his 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 valour and exuberance by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. The London orchestras have shown little of these qualities. I think 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 his approach to repertoire, the coming season includes three major works by John Foulds (surely confirmation of the rumours that there will be a complete CD of this visionary music). In one of those 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 percipience or determination to tackle the work ... not since isolated performances by Norman del Mar and Vernon Handley during the 1980s.

The world seems to be awash with Sibelius cycles many of which I have been able to review here. Vänskä (Bis), Ashkenazy (Decca), Berglund (Bournemouth, EMI) and Karajan/Kamu (DG Trio), to take three 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, 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. I do however know that Oramo's recording of the Sixth stands at the extremes of interpretation and will remorselessly hold your attention. I always think of the Sixth in terms of a certain bleached radiance. The exemplar of this trend is Karajan's DG Sixth. 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 in just over 27 minutes. It is driven, heated, impetuous, goaded forward and passionate in a way I do not recall hearing before. Oramo might almost be another Mravinsky in the belligerent impetus with which he infuses and sets fire to Sibelius's pages. The fourth movement catches the rolling stormy magic of the piece and links, in a way I have never previously remarked, 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 indomitableness 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.

I understand that there is a complete box of the Oramo/CBSO Erato symphonies. I hope to be able to review that here but should you wish to press ahead here are the full details:-

Symphonies 1, 3, Finlandia 0927 43500-2

Symphonies 2, 4 0927 85776-2

Symphony 5, Karelia, Pohjola's Daughter, The Bard 0927 85822-2

Symphonies 6, 7, Tapiola 0927 49144-2

Complete Set 2564 60294-2 (4CD set)

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 be adding this Erato disc to your hall of fame. Magnificent.

Rob Barnett


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