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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Essential Orchestral Favorites

Karelia Suite, Op. 11 (1893) [16:59]
Valse triste, Op. 44/1 (1904) [5:42]
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 (1906) [14:24]
The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22/2 (1893, rev. 1897, 1900) [9:55]
Andante festivo for string quartet (1922), rev. orchestra (1939) [6:01]
Three Movements from The Tempest, Op. 109 (1925) [6:32]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899, rev. 1900) [9:15]
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1903, rev. 1905) [33:33]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901-02) [45:45]
Pekka Kuusisto (violin) (Concerto)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
Finnish Radio Orchestra/Jean Sibelius (Andante festivo)
rec. dates and locations not listed. All performances reissued from Ondine CDs (1995-2007). Andante festivo from 1939 Finnish Broadcasting Company archives
ONDINE ODE1265-2D [69:34 + 79:32]

The 150th 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 Andante festivo 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 Daughter, 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 as Tapiola. 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 Valse triste 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 Lemminkäinen Suite 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 loudly.

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, Caliban, and Miranda. Although 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.

Leslie Wright