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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.1 in e minor, Op.39 (1898/9, 1900) [39:41]
En Saga, Op.9 (1891/2) [19:01]
Gothenburg Symphony/Santtu-Matias Rouvali
rec. Gothenburg Concert Hall, 28 May – 1 June 2018. DDD.
Reviewed from press preview.
ALPHA 440 [58:44]

I always think of this as the symphony that Tchaikovsky might have written if he had lived a little longer, yet it’s also unmistakeably the work of Sibelius, who had already completed several characteristic works, not least En Saga which closes this album.

Though immediate in appeal, it’s less popular than the Second and Fifth, but that has not stopped there being several very fine recordings. The earliest and not the least recommendable of these came from Anthony Collins with the LSO on a Decca LP in 1952; it remains available as part of an Australian Eloquence set (Symphonies Nos. 1-4, 4429490, 2 CDs for around £11 but currently on offer for £9.00 – review). The complete set was one of the early successes of the Beulah catalogue – review review – but I’m not sure about their availability on CD or as a download – DL Roundup May 2010. Certainly, the separate releases on 1PD8 – 5PD8 are listed as ‘nla’ on the Beulah website (

Some of the best recent recordings come in complete sets of the symphonies: from the Lahti Symphony Orchestra with Okko Kamu (BIS-SACD-2076: Recording of the Month – review DL News 2015/9); from Sir Colin Davis with the LSO (RCA 88765431352 – review of earlier release; LSO Live LSO0191 [CDs] or LSO0675 [SACDs] – review) and Boston SO (Decca 4783696, or Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 Decca Duo 2-for-1 4461572); from Osmo Vänskä with the Lahti Orchestra on BIS (Nos. 1 and 4 on BIS-CD-861, or see footnote for details of collections)1; from Neeme Järvi with the Gothenburg Symphony, also on BIS (BIS-CD-622/4, around £38)1 and the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds (Chandos CHAN10809, 3 CDs, around £21, or download from in mp3, 16- or 24-bit – DL News 2014/6).

I’m not alone in preferring Vänskä’s Lahti accounts of No.1 and No.4 to his remake of the same coupling with the Minnesota Orchestra, though there’s very little in it and the new version has the advantage of availability on SACD or 24-bit download (BIS-SACD-1996 – review). The LSO Live Davis and the Chandos Storgårds are also available in 24-bit, as are BBC NOW and Thomas Søndergård on Linn (CKD502 – review). The Linn is CD only, but 24-bit is available from their website (£15, with CD-quality 16-bit for £12).

If neither Søndergård nor Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé (CDHLL7514, with Symphony No.3 – review) quite makes it into my final cut, it’s simply because the competition is so fierce. Having taken the opportunity to replace my mp3 download of the Elder with the lossless version from, I listened to it again and enjoyed hearing it in improved sound (albeit 16-bit only).

The Elder recording as a download is very reasonably priced at £7.99. Otherwise, bargain hunters should investigate Petri Sakari with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.554102, with No.3 – review of box set, now download only). Paavo Berglund’s complete Sibelius with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is well worth considering – the best bargain of all, 8 CDs at around £14 (Warner 9736002 – review of earlier EMI release: Bargain of the Month). The Chandos CD with Sir Alexander Gibson conducting Nos. 1 and 4 is deleted, but it can be downloaded for £4.99 in lossless sound from – don’t pay more from other providers (CHAN6555).

That’s enough competition at all prices to deter any record company from commissioning a young conductor to record the Sibelius symphonies, but I’m pleased that Alpha took the gamble with Santtu-Matias Rouvali, because it has certainly paid off. I hadn’t heard him before, but I enjoyed this release so much that I immediately played it again and I certainly intend to hear his recording of the Sibelius and Nielsen Violin Concertos with Baiba Skride and the Tampere Symphony Orchestra, which has received higher praise in some quarters than from Jonathan Woolf – review (Orfeo C896152A).

From the plethora of fine recordings which I’ve listened to, the Søndergårds (Linn), which I hadn’t previously reviewed, and the Lahti Vänskä (BIS) served as my benchmarks for this symphony despite John Quinn’s choice of the Minnesota version for comparison with the Linn (link above). Because we haven’t reviewed the Storgårds in detail, I’ve listened to that, too, and because my previous copy of the Elder was mp3 only, that also, in lossless sound.

It’s apparent from the timings that there are no huge discrepancies, though Vänskä tends to go for the fastest tempi – Lahti timings listed, but the Minnesota figures are similar, just a little faster – with Rouvali the slowest in some movements and Elder in others.






























What these timings don’t tell you is that Rouvali is consistently exciting throughout the symphony. On paper Vänskä appears to be by quite a margin the odd one out in the first movement, but neither the Lahti account, still my favourite, nor the 24-bit Minnesota remake sounds rushed, while Rouvali, though considerably slower, offers sheer energy in one of the most compelling recordings of this movement that I’ve heard, which may well convince you right from the start that this symphony has just as much immediate appeal as its more famous successor.

Does Vänskä perhaps sound a little rushed in the third movement scherzo? Not when he has as fine a team of Sibelians at his beck as the Lahti orchestra – no hint here of breaking necks. But Rouvali’s Gothenburg players have this music at their fingertips, too, as witness their recording with Neeme Järvi, which would be one of the top two or three versions were the competition not so hot.

In the finale, which Sibelius marked Quasi una fantasia – shades of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata, but in a very different context – it’s important to get the aching, yearning feeling floated without making the music sound hammy. All the versions that I’ve been comparing do that very well, but here Rouvali’s slightly slower tempo really pays dividends. It’s not just a matter of tempo, though; Elder as the next slowest, is marginally – but only marginally – less effective in that respect.

As I was about to close this review, Sony released a new 3-CD recording of all the Sibelius symphonies from the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Paavo Järvi (RCA 19075924512). His earlier 4-CD recording of Kullervo, symphonic poems and vocal works is a formidable bargain (Virgin 6484032, around £11). That’s with an Estonian orchestra – the next-best thing to a Finnish one – and it combines the familiar with some less-trodden ground at a super-budget price. Can a French orchestra, at full-price, compete in better-trodden footsteps? The Sibelius Society seems to have thought so; they presented Järvi with the Sibelius Medal during the course of this cycle.

My initial judgement must be conditional on having listened only to the First Symphony, especially the finale, and the Fifth. At first, I thought the playing a little too clinical, as if the orchestra were trying hard to shake off their Gallic mantle, but, as the movement progressed, I warmed to this account and, though the Fifth is hardly up with the very best, I shall be checking out the whole set of these live recordings, made over a period of five years (2010-15).

Competition is even hotter in En Saga but here, too, Rouvali and the Gothenburg orchestra take their places with the best. And, for once, I didn’t leap up from my seat in anger that the filler came after the main work – it seems a better arrangement for the symphony to come first, with the opening movement growing organically out of silence. Nor, uncharacteristically, am I complaining about the rather short playing time on the new release. En Saga also feels more ‘right’ after the closing bars of the symphony than another Sibelius symphony on the other recordings, more generous though that is.

As in the symphony, the Gothenburg Symphony are the equal of any that I know in this work and the recording is very good.

I started with the statement that the best recordings of the first symphony come not single spies but in battalions of complete sets. The good news is that Alpha announce this recording as the first of a series. I look forward with great interest to the rest.

I could live happily with any one of the recordings to which I’ve listened or re-listened for this review. Noner of them are dubs, but my first choice remains Osmo Vänskä’s recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, most economically obtained as one of the BIS downloads listed in the footnote1.

It should be apparent, however, that I am very taken with the new recording. Mostly it’s as appealing as the Vänskä and in some respects even more so, which makes me repeat my hope that Alpha’s intention to give us Rouvali and his team in the other Sibelius symphonies will materialise soon.

1 Various BIS permutations are available as downloads from their website, BIS-CD-1286/8 offers all seven symphonies, plus Tapiola, around £38 on CD, for $21.13, considerably less than many providers charge. BIS-CD-622/4, the symphonies plus Kullervo, also around £38 on disc, is too expensive at $44.34, when it’s available for £28.77 from Presto, while The Essential Sibelius, BIS-CD-1697/1700, on 15 CDs for around £57, Bargain of the Month – review – is ridiculously over-priced as a download at $168.55. The Lahti recording of No.1 and No.4, BIS-CD-861, costs $11.11, the Minnesota remake, BIS-SACD-1996, is $10.90 (16-bit) or $17.44 (24-bit stereo or surround).

The 5-CD Volume 12 of the BIS Sibelius Edition, containing the Lahti symphonies, comes as two differently priced downloads: as offered here it’s $28.74, including the original and final versions of No.5, and alternative versions of some movements. For UK purchasers, the Qobuz download offers better value at £15.99 – here, the same very attractive price for which they offer the even more complete Essential Sibelius here.

The same perplexing choice arises with the download of the Okko Kamu set, which is offered at two very different prices: the better offer - here - costs $25.21 for 26-bit and $35.29 for 24-bit.  Even then, the SACDs, at around £26, offer better value than the 24-bit download.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Jim Westhead

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