anniversary of Sibelius’s birth doesn’t occur until
next December. Ondine gets a jump on the event with this two-disc set of
reissues and 25-page album insert. This includes a detailed biography of the
composer and a chronology of his life in English and Finnish by Sibelius
scholar Vesa Sirén. The album also contains over 25 sepia-toned photos of
Sibelius, including some with his family and others with famous musicians
with whom he associated. Many of these photos are previously unreleased. The
double-fold container with the album in the middle is obviously intended as
a memento of the occasion and is a handsome one, indeed.
What of the performances? Virtually all of them have a great deal to
recommend them and belong to the very best of Sibelius interpretation. It is
a novel bonus to have a sample of Sibelius’s own conducting, even if the
does not give one much opportunity to assess the
composer as conductor. The 1939 recording of that string quartet arrangement
sounds quite good considering its vintage. As a generalization, the
Segerstam performances reflect that of the man himself: big and burly.
However, when you view them more closely and compare them to other accounts,
you discover the variety and naturalness of his interpretations.
On the first CD the standout performance is that of Pohjola’s
, a colourful and symphonic tone poem from Sibelius’s maturity.
In my opinion it is one of his greatest works and at the same exalted level
. Pohjola’s Daughter
is a difficult piece to
balance, but Segerstam does it as well as I have ever heard, giving all the
instruments their due and gauging the movement of the work with perfection.
He builds up to the climactic points inexorably and then allows the work to
subside into silence.
Of the other works on this disc I was especially taken with the early
Karelia Suite, which can seem really slight in other hands. Segerstam
manages to find more in the music than I thought possible — a delight. Both
and The Swan of Tuonela
are also well done,
the former particularly poignant in its sombre beauty. Segerstam
characterizes the Swan
with more drama than other conductors have.
It works well, but for something simpler in its beauty I would recommend
Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra on his recording of the complete
or Mackerras with the London Symphony on his
recording the Symphony No. 2. Finlandia
also gets a broad, dramatic
treatment with the final appearance of the hymn drawn out.
On the second CD we find the opposite in the 1996 recording of the Violin
Concerto. Here Kuusisto and Segerstam are rather understated compared to
some other performers of this popular concerto. It is a very fine
performance in its straightforward way, but it took me by surprise because
of Segerstam’s usual penchant for the bold and dramatic. For a hotter
account, my current favourite is Hilary Hahn’s with the Esa-Pekka Salonen
and the Swedish Radio Symphony on DG coupled with. of all things, the
Schoenberg Violin Concerto in performances of tremendous stature.
The set closes with what is undoubtedly Sibelius’s most popular symphony,
if not by any means his greatest. It has received nearly as many
interpretations as the number of performances recorded. Segerstam and the
Helsinki Philharmonic are idiomatic with relaxed tempos and a flair for the
dramatic. As with most of these recordings, the sound here tends to be full
and reverberant, suiting Segerstam’s style, though it can become boomy at
times. This is especially noticeable when the timpani are playing
The title of this set is “essential orchestral favorites” and, therefore,
the Second Symphony fits in well with the concept. However, I would have
much preferred the inclusion of one of the later symphonies — perhaps the
Fifth or Seventh. As it is, the only late works here — if you don’t count
the inconsequential Andante festivo — are three extremely short episodes
from the composer’s incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest
The Oak Tree
, and Miranda
these excerpts give some indication of the direction into which Sibelius was
leading in his last productive years, a larger selection would have been
more valuable. What makes this set essential in commemorating the Sibelius
anniversary, though, is the special production with the photo album and some
very fine performances.