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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 (1902) [43:54]
Symphony No. 5 (1917) [32:19]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli (2)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli (5)
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, 1, 9 October 1962 (2); live, Royal Albert Hall.
9 August 1968 (5). ADD
TESTAMENT SBT1418 [77:03] 



Experience Classicsonline

The main object of this review is to make music-lovers aware of the release of two great Sibelius recordings.

Sir John Barbirolli was one of the foremost advocates of Sibelius, often finding a similarity between his Italian landscape and that of Finland! He made four recordings of Sibelius 2 from the NYPO in 1940 (Dutton CDEA 5016), the 1950s Pye recording to the Hallé’s “curates egg” complete cycle on EMI in the 1960s.

As Rob Barnett points out in his review of the Hallé set, neither No.2 nor No.5 were as strong performances as some of the others. I was aware of the present Reader’s Digest recording of the Second and its qualities but as a single full-price CD running to a mere 43 minutes it was never purchased; a similar example was Carlos Kleiber’s DG Beethoven 5 and 7 which I only got when the two recordings were put together at mid-price! 

This recording of Sibelius 2 was made in London with an orchestra which was unfamiliar to Sir John. Evocatively, as pointed out in Robert Matthew-Walker’s fine notes, Sir John visited his dying mother for the last time during the recording. It is a fantastic performance, free of any idiosyncrasies and the RPO play their heart out. Despite my love of Beecham, and strong respect for Rattle and Davis, I would be happy to live with this recording as my definitive Sibelius 2, which is my favourite of the seven. Not having heard the Chesky CD (CD-3) I’m unable to compare the transfer but it sounds great to me. The original recording is a tribute to the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson. I only wish we’d had Readers Digest LPs (later RCA) of this quality at my school rather than the magazine! 

The Hallé studio recording of Sibelius 5 was criticised by RB as slack and fey but the BBC recording from the Royal Albert Hall is in a different class. Previously on the short lived BBC Radio Classics label (15656 91882), Testament have refurbished the sound significantly and through my new Cambridge Audio CD & Amplifier I felt I was in the RAH! Whilst recorded prior to the acoustic “mushrooms” the BBC engineers seem to have done great work to avoid “double echo”. I found it more “comfortable” than Vänskä’s recent digital version on Bis. The performance is exhilarating and well paced and is a sheer joy from start to finish. This is a classic version to my ears; I will leave it to others to place it in the Sibelius 5 league table! It’s certainly much more humane and heartfelt than Karajan’s splendid DG recording. 

As RB stated of No.2 “this is a platinum performance played with explosive rips and tugs of energy”; I felt this was true of both performances and would be a great introduction to these works. Nearly forty years after his death Barbirolli’s greatness is being even more appreciated by those sadly too young to have heard him live. 

Hats off to Testament - for me this was worth every penny of the asking price.
David R Dunsmore


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