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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1898/1899, rev. 1900) [39.42]
En Saga, Op. 9 (1892, rev, 1902) [19.01]
Gothenburg Symphony/Santtu-Matias Rouvali
rec. 2018, Göteborgs Konserthus, Sweden
ALPHA CLASSICS 440 [58.44]

Alpha Classics is certainly releasing a wide range of new recordings. Many are of exceptional quality, including this new Sibelius album from the Gothenburg Symphony under Santtu-Matias Rouvali, its Chief Conductor from the 2017-18 season.
Sibelius composed his First Symphony in 1888/89 and the thirty-three-year old composer conducted himself for the first time in 1899 at Helsinki. It seems that this original version has not survived. In 1900, it was Robert Kajanus who conducted the revised version in Helsinki. The big tune in the opening movement does remind me of the stylistic and emotional outpourings of Tchaikovsky, an influence that has often been remarked upon. A sign of the work’s relative neglect is that it was only twenty-one years later that the renowned Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the score. For its performance at the Paris World Fair in 1900, the symphony was promoted in a booklet by music writer Karl Flodin as “having the cachet of Finnish nature and national character.” Conversely, conductor Osmo Vänskä believes “the music contains the whole wildness and rage of the man.”

Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Gothenburg Symphony provide a rather adventurous approach but one that feels entirely appropriate and works very well. With inspiring playing of focus and clarity that creates a striking atmosphere, the often-mentioned description of a “fire and ice” landscape is very apt here. A sense of stunning views from mountain peaks is never far away. In sterling form, the orchestra combines style, unity and drama in equal measure, and the sincerity of the performance is never in doubt. Rouvali’s choice of broad dynamics and marked variations in tempi add to the overall impact. Throughout the work, one notices Rouvali’s pauses but they don’t seem to affect the overall flow. Rouval is not as quick in the opening movement as most of the twenty-two accounts I’ve consulted, but he is firm and bold, providing shattering drama. In the slow movement, the mood fluctuates between a kind of aching calm and passionate high drama. Rouvali’s performance feels quite measured, yet far more accounts take even longer. I relish Rouvali’s mercurial temperament in the forceful Scherzo, which gains considerably in pace. Although not as pacey as the majority, in the final movement Rouvali gives a thrilling performance that communicates an undertow of apprehension. Close to the conclusion, from point 9.05, the climax is especially stunning.

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. Subtitling it A Fairy Tale. One of his earliest entirely orchestral works, En Saga followed in the wake of the great success of his patriotic choral symphony Kullervo. Premièred by the composer himself in 1893, the score was later reworked by Sibelius. This version, which is invariable given today, was introduced by Robert Kajanus in 1902. Sibelius didn’t leave a programme note but did state that “En Saga is psychologically one of my most profound works.” Rouvali is careful to sustain the momentum throughout. I admire the way he perceptively brings out the often-brooding atmosphere and dark-hued character with the shifting nuances of the writing. The playing of clarinetist Urban Claesson is striking.

Recorded at Göteborgs Konserthus, the overall sound on the album is the most satisfactory I have encountered for some time, being crystal clear. In the booklet, Andrew Mellor has written an essay entitled ‘National Awakening, Self-Awakening’ which is a helpful and interesting read. Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Gothenburg Symphony make a magnificent partnership here and are a match for any recordings of these works that I know, though I retain great enthusiasm for two accounts of the First Symphony and En Saga included in outstanding complete cycles. There are the exciting recordings from Sir Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1976/77, included on his set ‘Complete Symphonies - Tone Poems’ on Decca. Exceptional, too, is Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1996 on BIS. The recordings form part of the BIS label’s fifteen-CD box set ‘The Essential Sibelius’, which contains the lion’s share of the composer’s major works. Another outstanding account of En Saga that I greatly admire is from Sir Mark Elder, conducting the Hallé, recorded in 2014 at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on the orchestra’s own label (c/w Symphonies 5 & 7).

These gripping and distinctive performances from Santtu-Matias Rouvali with the Gothenburg Symphony draw the listener in and definitely take a place near the top.

Michael Cookson
Previous reviews: Jim Westhead ~ Brian Wilson



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