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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1967)
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 Søndergård
rec. 2014, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

In December of last year I reviewed Søndergård’s live performances with this orchestra of the Sibelius First and Sixth symphonies. I mentioned that I had been informed that these same forces were to undertake a complete cycle of the Sibelius symphonies for disc and that – on the basis of the performances I had heard so far – this would constitute a considerable challenge to existing recordings. Well, here is the first instalment of that cycle, and I find myself in something of a quandary since it fails to live up to my high expectations.

In the first place, these are studio recordings made in the orchestra’s own Hoddinott Hall, and the recorded balance does not really do justice to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, particularly in the string department. These players have a richness of tone and body of sound that is extremely impressive, challenging the very best in the UK. Sadly, the balance here gives them decidedly short measure, as if the microphones have been placed to favour the wind. The recorded sound certainly does not reflect the real sound that this orchestra produces.

In the second place, the recordings here are not the same performances as those broadcast at the time. The Seventh was set down a couple of days before the live BBC relay, and sounds very similar to the performance I recall from the concert hall. The Second, which these same players and conductor gave at a live concert in St David’s Hall some months later and which I described in my review for Seen and Heard as “simply perfect” sounds here almost like the work of a completely different group of performers. Clearly during the period which elapsed between this recording and the live concert Søndergård had substantially reconsidered and refined his interpretation and it has to be said that his second thoughts were decided improvements. In the live concert he was prepared to be daringly slow especially in the second movement, charging the lengthy opening pizzicato passages with unsuspected depths of meaning; here he is considerably brisker, and the results sound much more ordinary. Similarly the closer balance given on this disc to the bassoons when they enter is much less mysteriously eerie than it was in the concert hall. I realise that audience coughing might have militated against a release of the broadcast relay unedited, but it really might have been preferable to ‘patch’ the live performance with its much weightier and more resonant string sound. The string definition and precision in the scherzo and finale remains marvellous, but the recessed sound they are given does not begin to do justice to the sheer volume they normally produce.

In the event what we have here is a performance of the Sibelius Second which is much more ordinary than that Søndergård and the BBC NoW gave six months later. That of the Seventh was made some five days before a live BBC relay which was hastily inserted into the broadcasting schedules on 1 April last year, and I can do no better than repeat some of what I said at that time:-

“Balances were expertly and exquisitely judged, enabling all the orchestral strands of the music to come through clearly. One might have hoped that the resolving string discord in the final cadence could have been stronger, but apart from this very minor cavil this was an excellent performance which served to dispel any persistent nagging doubt that this work might not really be a symphony at all. Sibelius himself was in doubt, originally entitling the score Fantasia sinfonica, and indeed the fluid manner in which he moves from tempo to tempo has nothing of the more formal approaches that often is employed by composers in one-movement symphonies (usually consisting of the incorporation of scherzo and slow-movement elements into a more or less standard sonata form). But Søndergård managed to bind together the disparate sections into a unified and satisfying whole.”

These words also describe the recorded performance we have here, except that once again the string sound in the hall during the live relay was more ‘present’ than in this disc.

Dan Morgan has already reviewed this disc as a download and quoted my comments last December regarding the prospect of a BBC NoW/Søndergård cycle as “brave words” in view of the existing competition. I am very much afraid to say that this recording does not do real justice to performances that in the concert hall have really been something very special indeed.

Andrew Achenbach supplies a comprehensive eight-page booklet note, but the photograph of the orchestra was clearly not taken in the Hoddinott Hall.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Dan Morgan


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