There are many complete recordings of Sibelius’s Seven Symphonies and they include two others from the BIS label: Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra while the Lahti Symphony Orchestra has previously featured under Osmo Vänskä.
Okko Kamu takes a generally lyrical view of the music and in most cases releases its full power at climactic moments. The Lahti SO, despite its relatively modest size, achieves weighty sonorities aided by a rich, well-detailed recording.
Not all Kamu’s interpretations incline so strongly towards romanticism as does that of the First Symphony. From the very outset the markedly strong swells and fades of clarinet and timpani set the nature of the conductor’s expressive approach. Other elements are a screwing-up of tension as tutti passages are approached and an encouraging factor is the achievement of truly hushed pianissimos. Kamu’s careful shaping means that the heart-warming surge of the expanded main melody two-thirds the way through the movement does not have its usual impact. It was however wonderfully portrayed eighty years ago by Robert Kajanus whom Sibelius had hoped would record every Symphony. This wonderfully optimistic moment was also superbly presented twenty years later by Anthony Collins. The quality of Collins’s iconic set is astounding and I keep returning to it. The warmth and detail of the slow movement typifies Kamu’s poetic vision of the music and the easy forward motion of the Scherzo makes the timpani interjections part of the flow (Vänskä is fiercer here and very convincing). The Finale is expectedly rhapsodic in Kamu’s hands and successfully so.
Kamu’s approach to Symphony 1 has some merit because the music has not quite moved away from 19th-century romanticism but Symphony 2 requires greater directness. Kamu’s considerable flexibility of tempo makes for impositive rhythm in the opening movement. Returning to Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s magnificent 1956 version, the music is gripping from the outset, a little slower although it moves forward firmly with strongly contrasting timbres from the instruments. Kamu builds some dramatic climaxes in the slow movement and the sense of haste in the Scherzo makes a dramatic point but the Finale is sluggish. Also it lacks the Koussevitzky-inspired timpani part in the coda used so successfully by Collins, Schmidt-Isserstedt and Mackerras; the ending is dull without it and under Kamu it is particularly so since his tempo becomes slow to the point of eccentricity.
Symphony 3 presents a great contrast. Here Kamu begins by imparting forward drive and like Collins or Lorin Maazel (Vienna) builds exciting climaxes. The slow movement is marked Andantino con moto quasi allegretto – an accurate description of the tempo adopted by Collins who takes seven-and-a-half minutes. Kamu takes ten, bringing an unconvincingly dark nature to this intermezzo-like piece, yet Kajanus, with Sibelius’s imprimatur, is even longer in duration. Although not swift, the Finale is driven firmly and there is excellent inner detail; Sibelius moves fragmentary ideas from instrument to instrument and the precise location of them here illuminates this aspect very clearly.
Pace is again a matter for discussion in Symphony 4 and conductors are in wide disagreement. Eugene Ormandy’s swiftness was very convincing, Collins and Thomas Beecham took a similar view, Kamu is very broad – a surprising three minutes longer than Collins in the deeply serious third movement, Il tempo largo (Vänskä is an amazing three minutes longer still), yet in context Kamu’s reading is in accord with his expressively-phrased overall view of the Symphony. He brings a sense of inevitable tread to the Finale and although at the close the pace is spacious, Kamu does not take the controversial option of slowing further in the ultimate bars. His steadiness here leaves one to imagine that the music is continuing.
In No.5 a dramatic approach is evident but the phrasing is very flexible and excitement is created through emphasis rather than drive. The repeated mysterious five-note figure introduced by trumpet (3:22 into the opening movement) sounds extraordinarily careful; in fact an air of caution pervades the whole. In the Finale this deliberation clarifies every note within the quiet tremolando string passages and the music seriously lacks tension – the careful progress relaxes further to herald the great motto theme which here emerges massively. This may be a way of creating grandeur but I prefer the view taken by other interpreters who do not impose such emphasis.
Having confessed disappointment with Symphony No.5, I was delighted to hear Kamu’s closely-detailed approach in No.6. I treasure Paavo Berglund’s perceptive conducting of this work and Kamu recalls it. Here the detail emerging from the complexity of the string-writing of the opening passages holds the listener’s attention as it nears the long-delayed build-up to the brief main climax. The touch of haste in the Poco vivace, enhanced by the crisp positivity of the timpani, lightens the generally serious scene and the mysterious ending to the Finale is rather moving. As with No.4 it is essential that there should be no rallentando and again Kamu is fully aware of this; the wonderfully sotto voce playing achieves all that the music requires.
There are times during these versions when freedom with tempo is disturbing; in the single-movement No.7 there are tempo changes marked in the score but by understating them Kamu achieves a comforting sense of inevitability. An important feature of this Symphony is the recurrence of a noble trombone tune. Kamu ensures that it is portrayed as a subtle change of colour; Vesa Lehtinen is the credited soloist.
There is something special about Kamu’s readings of Symphonies 6 and 7 and his comprehension of No.4 helps the listener appreciate this remarkable work. There are notable alternative accounts of the remaining Symphonies, many of which I prefer, nevertheless Kamu has an affirmative view of Sibelius’s achievements.