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SIBELIUS: 'Finlandia', 'Karelia Suite', Four Legends from the 'Kalevala'.    Iceland Symphony Orchestra Petri Sakari. Naxos 8.554265 [73m] DDD.
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I have been following Petri Sakari's Sibelius cycle with great interest as it recalls fond memories of the discovery of the Collins and Karajan recordings made in the 1950's. On a nostalgic note, my first ever Naxos purchase was a similar Sibelius collection with Kenneth Schermerhorn almost ten years ago, how things have changed! The Iceland Symphony Orchestra is an extremely polished body of musicians, all well-schooled and trained in a serious Sibelius tradition. It is therefore doubly welcome that Naxos were to release this collection of orchestral showpieces just after my acquisition of the Karajan Sibelius recordings for EMI and DG respectively. Certainly, those are fine selected comparisons in a day and age where great interpretations of Sibelius' music are few and far between. Sakari's 'Finalndia' is bold and resolute with a suitably dramatic opening and whistling winds rustling in the rousing central section. The ISO woodwinds are beautifully characterful in the final part of the work which lacks nothing in corporate bombast. Accusations at the relative simplicity of 'Finlandia' may abound but it still remains one of the showpieces of the repertoire. This 'Karelia Suite' is similarly engaged and also compares favorably with the best around. I still retains affection for Anthony Collins' marvelous EMI account recorded in mono with the RPO (Beulah 5PD8) although that is beginning to sound its age, technically speaking. Sakari is perhaps a little too humane in the Intermezzo which bubbles along nicely but lacks that imparting sense of the thrilling Nordic adventure. Conversely, his Ballade is beautifully shaped, there is much that is sensual and dreamy like in the long drawn out string playing, indeed the RPO strings are matched with eloquence by their Icelandic counterparts. As for the 'Alla marcia', Sakari and the ISO are a jolly unbuttoned group that really get to the heart of the matter.

This leaves us with the substantial 'Four Legends', definitely one of my favorite Sibelius works ever since I got acquainted with the first two substantial pieces. 'Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari' shows off the ISO woodwind at its best capabilities whilst the joyous and hedonistic nature of the music is well captured. My first encounter with this piece was a charming mid seventies Ace of Diamonds recording with Jussi Jalas conducting and I found much to compare with here. Death and desolation permeate 'Lemminkainen in Tuonela' where the dark brooding cellos and atmospheric woodwinds create a remarkably tangible effect coaxed by Sakari's highly imaginative conducting. With the final two numbers we are on more familiar territory. 'The Swan of Tuonela' glows with visionary beauty, almost like a burnished copper swan! I must single out Dao Kolbeinson's beautiful cor anglais phrasing, this is really masterful playing throughout and I would certainly not hesitate to say that it is much better than Gibson's soloist on a Chandos Collect disc. With the hustle and bustle of 'Lemminkainen's Return' we are in Beecham territory. Comparisons with his glowing 1936 recording available on Dutton are odious but Sakari is deft and exciting enough with a rousing conclusion that concludes the suite with aplomb. Beautifully engineered and magnificently played, this new Sibelius issue is a must for those who are about to dip into this composer's unique soundworld and also would not demerit a seasoned Sibelian's collection. After all, precious little cash is needed!


Gerald Fenech




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