Sibelius Tone Poems Review

Album. Released 2002.  

BBC Review

Lahti has its own Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, and...these superb...

John Armstrong 2002

Lahti is a bustling lakeside town about 50 miles from Helsinki. Lahti has its own Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, and anyone who loves the music of Sibelius will already know just what a good combination of orchestra and conductor they are: these superb Sibelians have already recorded one of the finest cycles of Sibelius Symphonies in recent years. So, you'd expect me to welcome a new cd of Sibelius tone poems from my favourite Finns with open arms, wouldn't you?

Not so fast...for a start they've already recorded all the big, popular tone poems alongside the Sibelius Symphonies, so isn't this just a mopping-up exercise? They're also in a brand new hall, so what about the acoustics, and have the BIS engineers managed to make it work?

Well, yes, it is a mopping-up exercise in a way, the leftover tone poems, but the beauty of it is it never feels like it. The playing is superb, the performances cut from the same cloth as the symphonies, and there's no sense that we're listening to lesser Sibelius. From the chilly expanse of En Saga to the aquatic canvas of the Oceanides Vänskä and his orchestra are utterly at home with the scores, but never routine or matter of fact. From the poignant harp chords that begin The Bard to the restless Night Ride and Sunrise every gesture counts, and every sound is beautifully caught.

The recording is outstanding; it may be one of the first from the new Sibelius Hall in Lahti, but the BIS engineers seem to have got it right first time: depth and great detail, with everything emerging from a velvety black background that's perfect for this dark, spare music. One moment though brought me up short: the Sunrise bit from Night Ride and... It's steadier than I'm used to, slower and more implacable, with more detached, staccato strings. So, a quick look at the score...you find that Vänskä and co are doing exactly what they're asked, while others are not as scrupulous. I should have known, shouldnt I?!

Whether you've been collecting the Lahti Sibelius series or whether you just want to make a little space for a handful of tone poems, this latest offering from BIS is brilliant, one of the best recordings of Sibelius I've heard for a long time. Glancing at the sleeve you'd think it had a vital flaw; there's no hit, no single work like Finlandia or the Swan of Tuonela to convince you to pick it up. But once you get it in the cd player it slowly dawns on you that it doesn't matter, it's all great Sibelius when it's played and recorded as well as this.

Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3

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