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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major. Op. 43 (1902) [41:53]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924) [20:33]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Sondergård
rec. 2014, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master
Pdf & ePub booklets included

Thomas Sondergård and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales lit up the 2013 Proms with a fiery performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905. They also gave a well-received account of Sibelius's Fifth the following season (review). Paul Corfield Godfrey thought highly of their Sibelius First and Sixth, played in Cardiff last December (review). He even suggested that Sondergård and the BBCNOW’s Sibelius, once recorded, would be very competitive indeed. Brave words, given the quality of the competition, not least Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony’s BIS set (review).

Vänskä has since embarked on another Sibelius cycle for BIS, this time with the Minnesota Orchestra. I’ve reviewed the First and Fourth and Second and Fifth from that series, and while there are things to admire those performances don’t begin to challenge Vänskä’s earlier traversal. Not surprisingly the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth has given rise to another set, this time from fellow Finn John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN 10809). This is very likely to be the prelude to a Nielsen cycle which, if the live broadcasts are anything to go by, should be well worth hearing.

As we’re dealing with high-res downloads here I’ve chosen to cherry-pick the Second and Seventh symphonies from the Storgårds set and audition them alongside Sondergård’s accounts. Purely in terms of value for money that doesn’t make a lot of sense – the comparatively high price of individual tracks means my selection cost more than £20 – but musically it promises to be an intriguing exercise.

Sondergård’s Sibelius 2 starts off well enough, although that surging tune isn’t quite as arresting as it can be; what follows is well played but rather episodic, which is probably why those trademark tuttis don’t feel as inevitable or as imposing as usual. Storgårds, weightier and more analytically recorded, isn’t ideal here either; at least he sounds cumulative/purposeful. At this early stage both conductors are just too hesitant in music that needs to be shaped and projected more confidently than this. Storgårds has the better sound, especially in the bass; the Linn recording is surprisingly unfocused at the lower end, and the climaxes are somewhat brazen at times.

Hitting his stride at last Storgårds gives us a suitably emphatic second movement – what vigorous pizzicati – and that puts him firmly out in front. There’s urgency and drama aplenty, which in turn creates a very compelling narrative. Also, the BBC Philharmonic - at their unanimous best - deliver a big, well-blended 'Sibelius sound'. Alas, the BBCNOW don't have the same weight or presence and Sondergård doesn'to pace or shape the music nearly so well; indeed, there’s a curious, rather fitful quality to the latter's reading that I find most distracting. His Vivacissimo offers more of the same, with a mix of wild lunges and more successful descents into inwardness and lyricism. Any flashes of insight – as welcome as they are – merely underline how much tension and incident is missing from Sondergård’s performance thus far.

Gaining in confidence as he goes Storgårds does a splendid job with the last two movements of Sibelius 2. It's impossible not to be caught up in the tumult; as for the BBC Phil they play with enormous passion and bite in the big moments and with melting tenderness in the quieter ones. There’s a volatility here that seems entirely apt, and Storgårds punctuates his big, bold paragraphs with a clarity and confidence that Sondergård simply cannot match. Storgårds’ Finale – now grand, now quirky – is superbly paced and scaled; not only that, he builds up to those perorations with an implacability that’s sorely lacking with Sondergård. And goodness, the BBC Phil brass at the close are just magnificent, crowning a very fine performance indeed.

What does Sondergård make of Sibelius’s last completed symphony? He zeroes in on its darker elements, its swirls and eddies, and there’s a liberating sense of continuity and character that you won’t find in his account of the Second. The Welsh strings are eloquent and there’s a spaciousness to the reading that’s most appealing. Now this is more like it; there’s nobility and breadth, ardour and inwardness, and that helps to forge a landscape of great variety and imagination. Sondergård also emphasises the symphony’s skittish qualities, and his players seem rather more at ease with this symphony than the last.

Now Storgårds is the one who’s found wanting, for while his is a gentler and more reflective Seventh it doesn’t have the grip and stoicism that one gets with Sondergård. In making amends for his lacklustre Second Sondergård demonstrates that he does have something worthwhile to say about this composer. Indeed, his fine Seventh has renewed my desire to hear more Sibelius from this source. Sonically, though, Linn must yield to Chandos, whose recording has greater depth, finesse and a more subtle colour palette. Besides, the all-important timps and tuttis are far more visceral here than they are for Linn.

Sondergård compensates for a tentative Second with a vital, strongly characterised Seventh; Linn’s recording is surprisingly variable, though.

Dan Morgan