Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 1 & 3 (Naxos)

Symphony No.1 in E minor, op.39 (Inktroduction)
Symphony No.3 in C major, op.52

Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554102
[67:35] budget-price

From the volcanic land of Björk Naxos has launched its new (the second after Adrian Leaper’s, also good) cycle of Sibelius Symphonies. For a company not well-known for repeat recordings of the same music, I can only say this bodes well for the composer – and what a smashing start this is!

Led by their new and able Finnish director Petri Sakari, the Iceland Symphony (who have previously recorded some Sibelius for Chandos) provide very tightly etched and sharply responsive account of the music, combining precision which never becomes rigid, with strength of conviction and energy. The result is readings which feel confident and highly charged but never over-indulges, as heard in the first and third movements of the Romantically-inclined Symphony No.1.

The Icelandic engineers deserve praise too – though overall the sound occasionally sounds a bit lacking in body, the orchestral picture is as detailed as a snowflake. One detail which caught my ear is the two trumpeting shots from the woodwind at 10’36” in the first movement, a part too often underemphasised in other recordings. The harp, usually not done any sonic justice in this symphony, glitters.

Sibelius, 1905
Sibelius in 1905, between the time of the 1st and 3rd Symphonies

The performance of the Third Symphony is likewise superlative: it exudes the strength and confidence already heard in the reading of the First. The vital contribution of the Iceland strings is evidenced by the detailed violins, the singing violas, the doublebass march – all dealing with the splendid primary theme of the first movement with much gusto. The “neo-classical” architecture of the strings and winds, punctuated by Sibelius’ unique writing for timpani – is clearly evinced.

The woodwinds are superb, whether in echoing the strings, laying their important chords, or dotting the symphonic picture with their staccato chirps – all filling the first movement Allegro moderato. Their ability to exchange is another essential ingredient in any performance of the Sibelius symphonies. No review of the Third can escape commenting on the beautiful slow movement, in my opinion one of the most beautifully melancholic among the composer’s symphonic ouevre.

The Icelandic woodwinds are cool, slightly dry – qualities associated with musicians of the Nordic countries and perfectly fitted to the autumnal dusk of the G-sharp minor Andantino. They evoke pictures of heartfelt bittersweet, in the yearning tang of the woodwinds, singing to each other across vast expanses of soulful forest, of silvery twilight reflecting on quiet icy landscapes, caressed by the soothing, rustling violins. The deeply felt performance here is a total match to that in the slow themes of the Romantic elder brother of Symphony No.1. Both the performances of the Third’s forlorn Andantino and the heart-searing song of passion in the finale of the First – gave me more than enough reasons to shed tears.

Petri Sakari

Direction is another key element of both symphonies. In the first, the powerful momentum must be kept up, say in the violent passages from the Scherzo and the Finale. For the Third, it is especially at the conclusions of the first and third movements. Orchestra and conductor must give a sense of arrival and completion. In this Third, Sakari deals with the first movement conclusion with nobility and patient wisdom, the final chords in regal magnificence. The fused scherzo and finale that comprises the third movement demands even greater concentration, with the flow into the “finale” section being the most difficult to pull off convincingly. The Icelanders achieve great unity, playing with as much attention to detail as well as confident pace (witness the sharp exchanges between the orchestral sections).

The flow of tempo in Sakari’s hands is superb. I am pleased to report that his transition into the string hymn which marks the beginning of the end in the third movement – is seamless and done in true Sibelian spirit. The orchestra rallies together in powerful, heroic voice, as they did in the coda of the First Symphony, with its insistent and driving spiral string motif. For the Third Symphony, listen to the charging basses with the clarinets trumpeting overhead, followed by the bellowing horns as all surge forward to the triumphant end! These are marvelous readings in a must-have CD. Sibelians, do not hesitate.

(Bit of history: Mr Sakari conducted in Singapore in April 2000).


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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

One thought on “Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 1 & 3 (Naxos)”

  1. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra knows and loves its Sibelius. This is one of the best recorded versions of the great E minor symphony. Under the baton of Petri Sakari the music flows with a combination of passion and intelligence which few other recordings can match. There is an authenticity and integrity to this Icelandic voice which I’m sure Sibelius himself would have endorsed. The last movement is particularly marvelous, with the gut-wrenching string theme soaring higher than any other recording I know of. The Third Symphony on this disc is also highly recommended – but buy it for the First. All true Sibelians have a deep spiritual link with the incredible Opus 39. Five very bright stars out of five.

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