Sibelius
Finlandia
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo
Recorded in Symphony Hall Birmingham on 7, 11 & 12 January 2002

Yardstick version: The Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Paavo Berglund [FINLANDIA 3984 23388-2, 2 CDs]
CD No: ERATO 0927-43500-2
Duration:
Reviewed: July 2002
This, the third instalment of Sakari Oramo’s CBSO Sibelius cycle, may just be the best yet. Previously on Erato: 8573-85776-2 couples symphonies 2 & 4, the former rather hectoring, the latter lacking cumulative tension; then 8573-85822-2 brought an impressive Fifth Symphony, one detailed and dynamic-sensitive.
Oramo relishes the melodramatic side to the First Symphony and projects a storm-tossed and volatile rendition with no lack of poise, clarity, precision of ensemble and shapely expression. In short, this lively and exciting performance compels attention and satisfies both as symphonic structure and musical drama. Oramo knows just when to screw the tension up and relax for something intimate. Yet, some of the ’Finale’ is maybe a tad tensionless; and an attacca from the ’Scherzo’ to the ’fantasia’ last movement always seems mandatory – Bernstein (DG) makes the point.
Better still is the concentrated and economic three-movement Third Symphony. The unusual urgency of the opening movement is convincing because of precise playing and Oramo’s attention to how motives are shared among various instruments. There’s enough eagerness here to make other versions seem elephantine; and there’s no lack of taking-stock when required. The CBSO’s lean and vibrant response is impressive. Oramo’s time-taken way with the second movement’s direction of ’Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto’ seems contrary – yet return to Robert Kajanus’s 1930 recording, which has the composer’s imprimatur, and any doubts cease; Colin Davis is equally ’correct’ here. Oramo both teases and delights with his handling of this movement, at once gently dancing and rather more than that in its ’something beyond’ suggestiveness. The ’Finale’ – like the opening movement – is a masterly structure of thematic development; Oramo’s pacing and organic building to the closing bars is exacting.
A surprisingly underwhelming Finlandia makes little odds, and while I wouldn’t necessarily put Oramo above Paavo Berglund’s consistently superb 1-3 (part of his slightly hit-and-miss latest thoughts on this magnificent music), anyone looking for fresh and revealing Sibelius from a tried and trusted partnership should certainly give Oramo a go.
I have reservations about the recording that rather recesses the orchestra, not least the strings. While detail is admirably clear, there can also be a mushiness of mid- and lower-frequencies, a lack of impact and a tweaking of perspective that allows brass domination. Yet, it says something for the authority of the performances that one is more involved in the music-making than listing sonic deficiencies.

 

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