Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924)
Suite from King Christian II, Op. 27 (1898)
Suite from Pelléas et Mèlisande, Op. 46 (1905)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
rec. 2021, Helsinki Music
Notes in Finnish & English
ONDINE ODE1404-2 
Here’s an attractive Sibelius programme from Ondine, featuring what I presume is Nicholas Collon’s first commercial recording made with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra shortly after he took up his appointment as their first non-Finnish chief conductor.
The music presented here spans most of the period of Sibelius’ creative output and the first thing to say is that there is some tough competition in the catalogue for recordings of this repertoire, ranging from Ormandy, Beecham and Karajan in the symphony, the latter two conductors in Pelléas et Mèlisande through to Neeme Järvi’s and Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s accounts of the King Christian suite (review) - so a new recording has to be good if the average punter is to invest in it.
I’ll begin with the earliest work here, the King Christian suite. Collon and the FRSO give a warm, affectionate account of this most lyrical of Sibelius’ suites but Rouvali finds more lilt and passion in the opening Nocturne than either Järvi - with the same orchestra as Rouvali - or Collon here and Rouvali is given slightly more opulent sound. The Élégie is again played with great warmth and tenderness, but again Rouvali finds more inner tension in the music and applies more dynamic variety. The Musette features lovely woodwind playing, their round tones vividly caught by the engineers and nicely balanced with the rest of the orchestra. The Serenade is sensitively played but the Ballade, while expertly and adroitly executed, emerges as rather tame compared with the orchestral weight, drive and all-round wildness of Rouvali or Järvi.
It has to be said that in the opening number of Pelléas et Mèlisande, “At the Castle Gate”, while Karajan over-eggs the pudding with a lugubrious tempo, Collon and the FRSO achieve nothing like the ceremonial grandeur of Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic. That sets the tone for the whole suite: this is fine, competent playing which seems to shy away from deeper undercurrents. There is some lovely solo cor anglais playing in the “Mélisande” movement but it is to Beecham we must turn, antiquated 1955 sound and all, if we are to hear this music played with more soul. The haunting “At the seashore” is played atmospherically, if not with quite the same mesmerising quality as Karajan – it is a pity that Beecham omitted it in his recording. The sequence of five very short movements next is neatly played – again the woodwind excel – and enhanced by the depth and warmth of the digital sound. The “Entr’acte” is spritely and charming but it is in the last movement, “The Death of Mélisande” where we hear the profundity of Sibelius’ response to the character. Once again, it is beautifully executed but Karajan and Beecham convey a more trenchant of sense of mourning through the luxuriousness of their phrasing. Beecham’s is a mite compromised by the hiss – perhaps a Pristine remastering will remedy that as it has Beecham’s 1945 recording of just that last movement – but both the RPO and the BPO impress with the sheer opulence of their sound, which the leaner FRSO cannot match.
The Seventh Symphony is the final and central work here. My benchmark recording has long been the thrilling vintage account by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra made in 1960, with Karajan’s 1968 recording on DG as back-up. Compared with Ormandy, Karajan’s dark, sumptuous account is somewhat lacking in propulsion but the final five minutes are sublime There is, however, a special feeling of coiled tension about Ormandy’s version which has not been surpassed by any subsequent recording; it is tighter, tauter, more lyrical and lilting than any other I know – the way the Philadelphia strings sing outshines even the BPO. This new recording starts well, with considerable resonance and menace in the opening rising figure on C major, a tension which is well sustained through the development in to the fast, staccato section and the deep, swirling strings under the brass mid-point are impressive. However, the second half is less compelling, well-played though it is; the great climax at 18:02 does not really deliver the emotional punch it could and the coda is faintly prosaic. Admittedly, Ormandy cheats by beefing up the final chord with a crescendo and a fermata but Karajan and Osmo Vänskä, in two very different performances, find more drama while still following the score.
The booklet provides a detailed tracking list, full, informative, helpful
notes by Kimmo Korhonen and an atmospheric black and white photo of Sibelius
later in life, standing in his beloved Finnish forest.