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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E Flat Major Op. 82 (1914) [29:06]
En Saga (1892) [17:51]
Swan of Tuonela (1893) [8:18]
Valse Triste (1904) [4:58]
Finlandia (1900) [8:32]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Ole Schmidt (Charles Mackerras: Finlandia only)
rec. CTS Studios, London, 1996. DDD
REGIS RRC 1216 [69:08]

The Regis label have an astute eye for excellence. Their hunting grounds range over the defunct catalogues of Olympia, Unicorn, Collins and Tring. They are also the UK distributors of a label stuffed full of many old favourites - and a few horrors: Vox.

Tring issued large quantities of RPO recordings in the 1990s until the label disappeared and was remaindered in ‘The Works’. The lion's share of the present disc traces its origins back to those days. And because it's so recent the digital recording is of very high quality.

The RPO-Tring project had the orchestra as its core presence with a host of different conductors doing the honours for each disc. I would love to know whose idea it was to approach the Danish conductor Ole Schmidt to make this Sibelius disc. Whoever it was needed some courage. Although Schmidt had recorded one of the all-time defining Nielsen cycles (Unicorn also reissued on Regis) that had been two decades previously. In any event the choice was good and a recording team was assembled that did Sibelius and Schmidt proud. I now need to hear Schmidt's Regis CD of the Borodin Second Symphony.

Schmidt's Sibelius 5 is monumental and indomitable. This is not code for slow. As for the sound it really is splendid. It is as if a pane of matte frosted glass has been removed and we are in the orchestra's immediate presence. The brass has real 'bite' The stereo spread is ample and details both subtle and stark emerge with renewed freshness. The finale's hurried tense whisper at 3.44 is superbly put across and so is the pizzicato at 4:13. And those six asynchronous hammer-blows are staggering. As for Schmidt’s En Saga this is one of the greats. It counts alongside my long-time reference version - Horst Stein's tense and volcanic Suisse Romande recording on Decca-Universal from circa 1972. The Swan of Tuonela is also superbly done with the cor anglais song floating on the sheer and shimmer of hushed violins. By contrast Valse Triste is taken very fast indeed.

Mackerras's Finlandia makes up the weight to almost seventy minutes. His brass have plenty of bark and burr and once again the recording has its vibrant splendours; not least the rolling massed horns.

This is one of those discs that slips way into the background all too easily. Sibelians need this disc. Schmidt’s Fifth could easily stand as the only version in someone’s collection.

Rob Barnett



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