LEBRECHT LISTENS | Rouvali And The Gothenberg Symphony Offer Holistic, Convincing Sibelius Symphonies

Jean Sibelius in 1939 (Public domain image); Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Image courtesy of the GSO)

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5 Pohjola’s Daughter (Alpha-Classics)

★★★★★

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Before the great Mahler inundation of the 1980s, every aspirational conductor was expected to know the seven Sibelius symphonies backwards and to perform them on demand. Leonard Bernstein claimed to have taught them to the Vienna Philharmonic; in fact, his compatriot Lorin Maazel got in there first, recording them a decade earlier. Karajan embedded Sibelius in Berlin. Philadelphia and Boston performed him as standard. London’s Royal Festival Hall was known to some of us as Finlandia-on-Thames. The train that linked Finland to Russia was named ‘the Sibelius’.

Then the wave receded. A line of Finnish conductors led by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Osmo Vänskä claimed vernacular rights in Sibelius and the rest of the world left them to it, more or less. The past quarter-century has seen a Sibelius slump.

Now, however, there’s a new burst of steam from the sauna. Klaus Mäkelä recorded a set of symphonies last year on Decca with the Oslo Philharmonic, and his compatriot Santtu-Matias Rouvali is covering them with the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. Mäkelä is the incoming chief of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Rouvali is being eyed up by New York and Chicago. You can bet your mortgage that Sibelius is going to have his own hedge fund in the decade to come.

I liked Mäkelä’s set a lot on release, although with reservations about some tempo relations, which felt a little forced and artificial. Rouvali, on this evidence, is the one to follow. His account of the third symphony rises from somewhere deep in a sub-Arctic tundra, swelling and sinking with the Aurora borealis. His orchestra, Sweden’s finest, feel this score in their very bones. I cannot recall a more convincing account of the third symphony on record, all the way back to scratchy 78s.

The fifth symphony is much more familiar terrain. Rouvali’s organic approach reflects natural rhythms rather than maestro whims, and the entirety of the orchestra more than a showcase for horn sales. It’s totally holistic. The concluding item on this release is the shy and elusive Pohjola’s Daughter, irresistibly attractive. The Swedes think they own Sibelius at least as much as the Finns. This orchestra absolutely does.

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