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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1911) [31:22]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 84 (1923) [28:41]
Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2018/2019, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
HALLÉ CDHLL7553 [70:03]

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra complete their cycle of the Sibelius symphonies with Nos. 4 and 6. It is the second such set to come out of Manchester in recent years. The much admired version by John Storgĺrds and the BBC Philharmonic has been released in 2014.

These particular symphonies are strongly individual in character. The Fourth is uncompromising and dark, the creative result of a difficult period in the composer’s life when he underwent operations for throat cancer, and was aware of the closeness of death.

The growling opening and associated cello solo set the tone. Elder’s carefully articulated approach captures the brooding intensity of the music very well. When climaxes are built, they are all the more powerful because of their context. The second movement is remarkable for its lack of rhetoric, while the tight ensemble of the Hallé’s playing contributes just the right intensity, allowing the darker mood of the two trio sections to make their mark.

The searching slow movement, which comes third, is surely the emotional core of the symphony, and the most difficult aspect to bring off. The relative restraint Elder brings to the earlier stages enables the lyrical line of the main theme to make its point, imposing its presence and building to a powerful climax with full sonority. The finale is driven by its sense of momentum; the rhythm is emphasised by the addition of glockenspiel to the orchestra. The performance generates considerable momentum, but the closing phase becomes increasingly enigmatic; there are no easy solutions here. The atmospheric acoustic plays its part in making this a compelling close, replete with quiet and sombre harmonies.

The Sixth Symphony is perhaps the composer’s least known and least appreciated, while also thoroughly characteristic. For every performance of the Sixth, there will be scores of performances of the Second, for example. The Sixth has also had a mixed press. A famous view is that of Neville Cardus, who described it as ‘inhibited and anemic’. This harsh judgement does at least point the listener in the right direction, because this work’s priority is one of under-statement, of subtlety rather than conventional symphonic power.

No symphony begins more beautifully than Sibelius No. 6, with what is essentially string music, and all credit to the Hallé’s intonation in creating the appropriate atmosphere. Out of the subtly shifting harmonies fine solo lines for oboe and flute emerge; they demand and receive expert playing. Then the harp, an instrument appearing in a Sibelius symphony for the first time since No. 1 twenty years before, sets the pulse against which the events of the first movement will occur. The rhythm is tricky to articulate, and towards the close there is a magnificent and powerful climax, whose majesty is not quite as powerful here as in some other performances, including Storgĺrds’s.

The second movement is enigmatic and the rhythm elusive, whereas in the third more power is generated. Elder opts for an effect rather like a Scotch snap, until the ending which is unequivocal and emphatic.

The opening gesture of the finale is arresting, and the compelling orchestral playing emphasises the uniquely sonorous power this composer can achieve. As in the Fourth Symphony, this finale generates considerable momentum. That also results in an enigmatic conclusion, whose beauty relies, as did the work’s opening bars, on the beauty of restrained string tone.

Terry Barfoot

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