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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Seven Symphonies
CD 1:
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39 (1898) [42:56]
Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52 (1904) [28:59]
CD 2:
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43 (1901) [47:03]
Symphony No.7 in C major, Op.105 (1924) [22:14]
CD 3:
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63 (1911) [39:49]
Symphony No.5 in E flat major, Op.82 (1914-15) [34:52]
CD 4:
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104 (1923) [31:36]
The Tempest – Suite No. 1 op. 100 no. 2 (1925) [25:13]
In Memoriam op. 59 [13:38]
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, 1990-92. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 8867 [4 CDs: 74:55 + 70:24 + 69:32 + 70:24]


Experience Classicsonline

Most people in the classical music world now know these symphonies so well and from so many different recordings. There is the danger that everything can become so predictable when every footfall is in its place and every stride perfectly timed. Music dies when the illusion of spontaneity has ebbed away. I found that, much to my surprise, when reviewing the Naxos coupling of Koussevitsky in Symphonies 2 and 5 and in some parts of of the Pittsburgh/Maazel cycle. At the other extreme are such inspirational performances as: Barbirolli/Hallé 1 (EMI), Stokowski 1 (Desmar then Sony), Collins 1 LSO, Beecham 2 (BBC Legends), Barbirolli 2 RPO (Chesky), Ormandy 2 (Sony), Kamu 3 Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (DG), Oramo 6 CBSO (Erato), Ormandy 7 (Sony) and Mravinsky 7 (EMI, Olympia, BMG, Melodiya).

For years the Sibelian mainstay of the Brilliant catalogue was Kurt Sanderling’s recordings with the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester. This was reviewed here by Neil Horner and myself. Before that I had reviewed it in its Berlin Classics livery.

Leif Segerstam (b. 1944) has delivered two recorded cycles of the Sibelius symphonies. The most recent one is on Ondine with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (Ondine ODE10752Q). In the early 1990s Chandos recorded him in all the symphonies and much else with Danish Radio forces. This was surely intended to replace their ageing set from Alexander Gibson and the RSNO. Gibson’s track record reaches back to the mid-1960s when he recorded a brace of Sibelius symphonies on a Saga LP (XID5284). Ironically however the Gibson discs and various permutations of them have survived in the Chandos catalogue while Segerstam has not. True you can still get a Chandos Enchant set of the very same performances featured here. You will also find one of the original individual Segerstam discs listed. Gibson however remains the triumphant survivor. He is still there in comparative profusion while the Danish Radio sequence has been remaindered and is now licensed out to the admirable bargain-basement line from Brilliant. They in turn continue to carry concurrently with the Segerstam their wonderful 1970s analogue set of the Sibelius symphonies from Kurt Sanderling which was originally on Berlin Classics. Segerstam has in the meantime joined Berglund and Davis in allowing himself another go – this time in the early 2000s with the Helsinki Phil on Ondine. So what is the ‘catch’ with this ex-Chandos cycle?

Slow Sibelius can be great Sibelius or at least good Sibelius - witness Colin Davis’s very broad Kullervo on RCA. On the other hand Okko Kamu’s Sibelius 2 on DG is just too much: flaccid and lacking in dynamism. While there are variations at a micro level the overall impression with Segerstam in these products of the Danish Radio sessions is of a slow motion dissection. You will hear episodes and close-up instrumental details you have not heard before but this is at the expense of the underlying pulse. It is just that that emphasis on pulse lends vitality to the readings by Horst Stein (Decca), Beecham (BBC Legends, Symphony 2) and my most recent discovery Van Beinum (Eloquence). In the First Symphony Segerstam is certainly not aiming for tensile strength; if he is he misses it by a good distance. His way appears to be that of an architect of silences separating notes. The finale is monumental to the point of being laboured and such is the phrasing in the finale that more than usually one thinks of Tchaikovsky. On the other hand one is struck by a superbly lucid recording with wide natural channel separation. The Third is not sharply accented and suffers accordingly. The Second Symphony also tends towards a rather swimmy lethargy although there are pleasures to be had from the husky warmth of the music-making. The contrast between this and the interpretations by Ormandy, Beecham and Barbirolli (RPO) tells against Segerstam. His Seventh is characterised by great playing and by the glistening sable weight of the violin tone. It’s one of the most successful of the symphonies in this set and the primeval hieratics, although not as strongly characterised as Mravinsky in Moscow in 1965, are impressive (5:32). Taken at this pace strange resonances float free of the texture – towards the end, for example, there is a moment, in the aureate belling of the horns, that reminded me very strongly of Nielsen’s Helios overture. The inward aspects of the Fourth Symphony are given an exceptional tense emphasis which is to the good. The second movement with filtered Valse Triste echoes is memorable. In the finale the playing and recording come together to produce really satisfying results – witness the snarling edge to the brass at 7:48. Again the Fifth Symphony is quite long drawn out but with sudden dramatic italicisation such as the exciting accelerando at 14:05 in the first movement. Its finale is taken at a slow speed which damagingly drains off the power of this fine Symphony. On the other hand those final off-beat hammer blows are rendered by players and engineers with such transparency that it is as if one can pick up out every stratum of the instrumentation. It’s a reading that is magnificent in its moments but as an arching span it is underwhelming. The Sixth, which is one of my real favourites among the seven symphonies, is again too slow and reflective. Everything is softened and light breezes replace passionate gales – the exact opposite of Sakari Oramo’s CBSO recording for Warners. The fillers are much better although the rare In Memoriam is taken at such a dawdle that it comes apart at the seams. It has a blunted gummy bite – a sort of deconstruction of the march; the equivalent in music of a dissection by Professor Gunther von Hagens. It lacks the cracking power of the Lahti Vänskä Bis recordings. The nine movements of suite no. 1 from the incidental music to The Tempest are well judged and full of imaginative choices such as the slow rocking motion of The Oak Tree, the terrifying chasm that is Intrada and the Tapiola-like gale of The Tempest episode with its roiling horns (3:20-3:31).

There are satisfactions here and apprentice score readers will learn much with less risk of losing their way. There are pleasures to be had from this characterful and inexpensive set when you have tired of the mainstream interpretations and want a radical change. Segerstam, himself an astonishingly prolific composer, does not deliver anonymous readings. It is just that his drum beats at a very different and measured pace from most others.

It is a pity that opportunity was not taken to mop up all the Segerstam Sibelius on Chandos. The attractions of this set would have been enhanced if Brilliant had included Kullervo, the two Scenes Historiques and Pelleas and Melisande suites.

This is a handy set which now emerges at an even handier price.

Rob Barnett

Segerstam’s Sibelius on Chandos (mostly deleted now):

Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63. The Tempest, Op. 109—Suite No. 1. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam. Chandos ABTD1539: CHAN8943

Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104. Pohjola's daughter, Op. 49. En saga, Op. 9. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam. Chandos ABTD1557; CHAN8965

Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43. Finlandia, Op. 26. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam. Chandos CHAN9020

Symphonies — No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82; No. 7 in C, Op. 105. Valse triste, Op. 44/1. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam. Chandos CHAN9055

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39. In memoriam, Op. 59. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam. Chandos CHAN9107

Symphony No. 3 Op. 52 / Tapiola Op. 112 / Scene with Cranes Op. 44/2 - Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam CHAN 9083

Kullervo, Op. 7. Soile Isokoski (sop); Raimo Laukka (bar); Danish National Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam. Chandos CHAN9393

Scènes historiques – Suite No. 1, Op. 25; Suite No. 2, Op. 66. Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 46. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam. Chandos CHAN9483



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