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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5, Op. 82 (1914/15, rev. 1916, 1919) [30.40]
Symphony No. 7, Op. 105 (1923/24) [22.34]
En Saga, Op. 9 (1892, rev. 1902) [17.40]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live and in rehearsal, 6 November 2010 (7); 18 March 2014 (5); studio conditions 7 November 2014 (En Saga), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
HALLÉ CDHLL7543 [72.13]

During the tenure of its music director Sir Mark Elder the Hallé has returned to become an orchestra that demands attention. Elder is clearly a passionate admirer of Sibelius and has on Hallé's own label already released recordings of the First, Second and Third Symphonies. Now comes the partnership’s third Sibelius disc bringing us within a single CD of the complete cycle. In 1949 and then in 1966 Sir John Barbirolli a renowned Sibelian recorded both Symphonies 5 and 7 twice with the Hallé to considerable acclaim. It's good to see that the orchestra’s long Sibelian tradition is continuing.

One of the most popular in Sibelius’s symphony cycle the Fifth Symphony originally had four movements and in this form was premiered in Helsinki in 1915. The composer conducted it on his fiftieth birthday. He returned to conduct the second version of the score, now in three movements, the next year in Turku. Following yet more revision he presented the final version in Helsinki in 1919.

There is no doubting the potent energy of this expansive reading of the Fifth from Elder. The work opens with a strong atmosphere of restlessness and pent-up anxiety - an almost suffocating intensity. The music bursts into life at 8.05 with all the invigoration of a bitter cold mountain stream. The playing of the Andante is remarkable for its fluidity. Elder develops an undertow of haunted expectation with bright shafts of light breaking through a murky grey. Gloriously paced, there is a tremendous breadth and penetrating nobility about the closing movement. The ‘Swan’ theme is one of the great episodes in music but is challenging for brass players. From 1.16 I noticed some slightly variable intonation in the horns.

Cast in a single movement the dramatic Seventh is his shortest in duration. Originally titled Symphonic Fantasy Sibelius wrote the work in 1918/24 but only after its publication in 1925 did he describe it as a symphony. Sibelius himself conducted the well received première in 1924 in Stockholm; his only symphony not introduced in Helsinki. Elder and his players assign gripping concentration and inner strength to the drama of this work. Maintaining a coherent flow from first to last the weight and grandeur of the playing is striking. This is writing of stark contrasts stretching from a sense of bone-chilling Nordic winds to what feels like a scene of an Alpine peak. Majestic string playing, characterful woodwind and rounded brass are a credit to the considerable preparation undertaken for this recording.

In the grip of his love of Finnish folk legends, Sibelius in his late twenties wrote in 1892 his large tone poem for orchestra En Saga. It was subtitled A Fairy Tale. One of his earliest entirely orchestral works En Saga followed in the wake of the great success of his Kullervo Symphony. Premièred by the composer himself in 1893 Sibelius later reworked the score that was introduced by Robert Kajanus in 1902. The latter is the version invariably given today. One senses that the Hallé are in total sympathy with the score and this reading feels taut and resolute. Sustaining momentum throughout, Elder’s conducting brings out the often brooding atmosphere, the dark-hued character and the shifting nuances of the writing.

Recorded at live Bridgewater Hall concerts and completed in rehearsal the sound engineers for the Hallé provide reasonable clarity and good balance. The applause at the conclusion of each work has been retained. Adding to the satisfying presentation in the accompanying booklet is a helpful essay penned by Stephen Johnson.

There are a considerable number of recordings of these three Sibelius works in the catalogue a number of which are highly recommendable; I auditioned several during this review. Of my preferred recordings I prize the accounts from the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä recorded in 1997 at the Church of the Cross, Lahti on BIS. In addition I greatly value the interpretations from the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis recorded in 1975 at Symphony Hall, Boston on Philips. Despite my caveat about horn intonation in the Fifth Symphony these Sibelius works under Elder and the Hallé, have seldom been performed more convincingly.

These are engaging performances and they certainly gain my seal of approval.

Michael Cookson



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