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 Recording of the Week  A Russian Sibelius cycle

There is no shortage of recordings of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s seven Symphonies. They have been common in Western Europe and America ever since the 1930s when the composer’s friend Robert Kajanus recorded the First, Second, Third and Fifth Symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra. Those were the first recordings made of the works and it is unfortunate that Kajanus died in 1933 before he was able to complete the set, as one imagines they are probably quite close to what the composer would have had in mind. Since then there have been a number of excellent complete cycles ranging from Anthony Collins 1955 cycle to Colin Davis’s live recordings from only a few years ago. But during all that time there has been very little from a country much closer (at least geographically) to Finland - in fact its eastern neighbour – Russia (or the USSR as it has been known for most of that time).

Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Gennady Rozhdestvensky

I was therefore both intrigued and excited when I found out that the Russian label Melodiya were planning to issue Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s early 1970s recordings with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra which have never before appeared on CD. I’m sure a lot of readers will be familiar with the typical Russian orchestral sound, with their very individual woodwind timbre, a wide vibrato from the solo brass instruments and a coarse and rasping sound when the brass are playing together. Sibelius writes well for brass instruments and there is therefore plenty in here for the Russian players to get their teeth into.

I’ve given you a long extract from the first movement of the Fifth Symphony to give you an idea of this style of playing. Listening to it, a lot of interesting questions come up. For example, I’ve always found the opening of this symphony quite mysterious, but when the horn player uses as much vibrato as this you don’t get that impression at all.

The booklet contains a selection of Rozhdestvensky’s thoughts on Sibelius, and a number of them point to similarities and connections to Russian music. He talks about the similarities with Borodin, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky, the orchestration of Mussorgsky, and the ‘foresights’ to Shostakovich. Sibelius knew a lot of Russian music and Finland at the time had close political and social connections to Russia, so it is not impossible that this sort of sound world was more familiar to him than the more restrained style of western orchestras you hear on all the other recordings.

Apart from the fascinating orchestral sound, the other big selling point here is Rozhdestvensky’s innate Sibelian instincts. In many ways they’re quite straightforward readings, refreshingly free from eccentricity but with a real splendour and power. He has an excellent understanding of the structure, so the pacing is superb and the climaxes often magnificent. The sound is very good, recorded in an ample acoustic and the woodwind solos always very clear. It would have been nice to have slightly more depth to the string sound but for me this is only a minor drawback against a number of positives.

But probably the most overwhelming impact of these discs is the brass sound, which is probably about as unsubtle as you get. I know it isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste but no one can deny that it is terrifically exciting (listen to the last minute of the extract below), and just maybe it is actually more what Sibelius had in mind.