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Jean SIBELIUS (1865 – 1957)
Lemminkäinen Suite, (Lemminkäis – sarja) Four Legends for Orchestra, Op.22 (1893–96, revised 1897, 1900, and 1939)1 [46:19]
Spring Song, (Vårsång) ‘La Tristesse du printemps’ (The Sadness of Spring) Tone Poem for Orchestra Op.16 (1894, revised 1895) [9:03]
Suite from Belshazzar’s Feast, (Belsazars gästabud) Incidental music to the play by Hjalmar Johan Fredrik Procopé (1889–1954), Op.51 (1906–07)2 [15:55]
Alison Teale (cor anglais)1, Igor Yuzefovich (violin)1, Michael Cox (flute)2, James Burke (clarinet)2, Norbert Blume (viola)1,2, Susan Monks (cello)1,2
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. Watford Colosseum, 22 and 23 May 2018. DDD.
Reviewed as 24/48 download with pdf booklet from chandos.net.
CHANDOS CHAN20136 [71:34]

This is advertised as the flagship Chandos release – for early May 2019 as a download, on 31 May on CD. In both the Lemminkäinen Suite and that which Sibelius made from Belshazzar’s Feast, there is plenty of competition in all price ranges, though there are fewer rivals in 24-bit sound.

The main work here, the Lemminkäinen Suite, used to take a whole LP to itself, on the rare occasions when it was recorded whole, as opposed to just the Swan of Tuonela. Indeed, Chandos still offer as a download the Alexander Gibson recording of the Suite on its own, a 44-minute CD (CHAN8394). A very decent performance and at least it’s a bargain at £4.99 from chandos.net – beware: some dealers are asking twice that price.

A more attractive proposition for just the Lemminkäinen Suite comes from The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Neeme Järvi on BIS BIS-294, a Penguin 3-star recommendation and well worth considering as a download for just $7.33, 16-bit only, with pdf booklet, from eclassical.com. As a full-price CD, it’s much less competitive.

My benchmark is another classic recording, from Osmo Vänskä with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. He first recorded the Suite with original versions and appendices and that remains available on BIS-1015 CD, [79:27] and in The Sibelius Edition – Volume 1, Tone Poems BIS-1900 [5 CDs for 3]. The CD set costs around £40 – on offer as I write for £30.75 – and the download can be found for around £38, or $34.99 from eclassical.com. Take care, however, to follow that link; it’s also available for $58.31 from another eclassical.com link!

That earlier, 1999, recording received a five-star rating from Len Mullenger – review – but it is effectively superseded by Vänskä’s later Lahti recording which comes on BIS-1745 SACD, with The Wood Nymph [69:37], especially as that is available on SACD and in 24-bit. The older recording remains valuable, however, for the extra items and the set is valuable for those and for the other tone poems, even if you duplicate it with the new recording. John Quinn thought the new recording ‘mandatory’ – review – and my only complaint was that half of the album had appeared before in various forms – DL News 2014/6.

For some reason, I had access only to the 16-bit version of the BIS recording in 2014, so I downloaded it again in 24-bit, with pdf booklet, to even up the comparison with the new Chandos. In 24-bit it costs $14.34 ($10.24 in 16-bit) which, even with the present parlous status of the £, makes it slightly less expensive than Chandos’ £13.99 (£9.99 in 16-bit). In making a price comparison, I should add that the very good Naxos recording of Lemminkäinen, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Petri Sakari can be obtained on CD for around £7.50 and as a lossless download for as little as £5.42, with pdf booklet, or £4.79 without booklet (no 24-bit) – 4/5 star review and DL Roundup February 2009.

The main differences are that Osmo Vänskä places Swan of Tuonela second, which I prefer, as per Sibelius’s decision in 1954; Petri Sakari and Sakari Oramo place it third, after Lemminkäinen in Tuonela. Oramo is more expansive thn Vänskä in the opening Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, Sakari even more so; Vänskä and Sakari considerably more expansive than Oramo in Lemminkäinen in Tuonela. The Swan and the Return find the three in broad agreement.

Another highly-regarded recording, from Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic in 1995, on Ondine ODE8522, with Tapiola – again the Swan is placed third – offers a very broad tempo for all but the final Lemminkäinen’s Return, where all agree on a snappy pace, with a bravura sign-off. Those broad tempi pay off in this suite, so that I find myself preferring Segerstam, Sakari and Oramo in Lemminkäinen and the Maidens, Segerstam and Vänskä in Swan and Lemminkäinen in Tuonela.

That would seem to leave Segerstam in front, and I would certainly be very happy if his were my only recording. It’s not available as a 24-bit download, however, so if you want something better than ‘ordinary’ CD sound, you need to choose between the second Vänskä recording on BIS and the new Chandos. Both are very good, with none of the over-wide volume range of which I have sometimes complained from Chandos in recent years – though not very recently.

If you really must have SACD, the choice has to be Vänskä. Chandos appear to be on the verge of joining those who have abandoned the format, but the availability of surround-sound with some of their releases – not this one – compensates, for those prepared to pay a considerable extra price. Why 16-bit lossless should cost more than mp3, 24-bit more still and 24-bit surround yet more baffles me; surely it costs just the same to transmit all formats, when no physical product is involved. I see that I’m not alone in raising this issue – it has cropped up on our Message Board as part of a discussion about the availability of recordings on YouTube. At least BIS offer surround sound to 24-bit purchasers at no extra cost, where it’s available – again, not in this case.

The charming Vårsång makes an enjoyable extra between the two main works. The Swedish title and French subtitle are significant: Swedish was Sibelius’s first language and the song-inspired music here sounds less overtly Finnish than we expect from him, though there is an occasional hint of the mature composer and the arrival of the Nordic Spring also brings with it a degree of wistfulness.

There’s plenty of competition in Belshazzar’s Feast, too, another work with a Swedish title: there’s Leif Segerstam again, with the Turku Philharmonic on Naxos – review review , Neeme Järvi with the Gothenburg Orchestra, separately or as part of the BIS collection (Volume 5: Theatre Music BIS1912/14, 6 CDs for 3) and Pietari Inkinen with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on another Naxos recording: Recording of the Month – review review review. The links which I gave in DL Roundup February 2009 are to defunct providers: download from Qobuz or stream from Naxos Music Library.

The Inkinen recording is mainly recommended for a very fine version of Night Ride and Sunrise, but my primary recommendation for this remains Horst Stein with the OSR on Decca Eloquence 4823922 (3 CDs).

Don’t expect the full-blown orientalism of The Procession of the Sardar from Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches in the opening Oriental Procession, or the drama of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast anywhere in the Sibelius Suite and you should be happy with any of the recordings that I’ve mentioned.

Overall, then, the new Chandos recording stands up well against the competition. If I prefer Segerstam’s, Sakari’s and Vänskä’s performances of the Lemminkäinen Suite, it’s not by much. In Belshazzar’s Feast, it’s even closer performance-wise, so choice of coupling, price, or the availability of 24-bit sound from Chandos could well be the deciding factor. Slight preferences for those other recordings in some respects apart, if the Chandos coupling appeals it’s a good choice.

Brian Wilson



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