SIBELIUS King Chistian II Suite. Finalndia (Søndergård)
We are still awaiting Symphonies Nos 3 5 in Thomas Søndergård’s BBC NOW Sibelius cycle but in the meantime comes this, something of a hotchpotch in repertoire terms and a mixed bag performance-wise too. Søndergård’s occasionally brutalist approach has delivered some compelling live concerts and can be seen as a descendent of Paavo Berglund’s but proves more troublesome in the repertoire assembled here. Finlandia is wrenched open with ferocity, which would naturally invite a contrasting serenity in the hymn section but the result feels jittery (the vibrato-laden flute doesn’t help).
That ferocity works best in the tumultuous climax to The Oceanides, where the BBC NOW’s slightly acidic strings climb up and down the scale with true menace and there is rare mystery to the counterpoint of low and high strings at the start. But again the flute’s vibrato feels born of a different world; and, if there’s a wider concern, it’s a lack of organic unfolding and homogeneity of sound that also makes Søndergård’s En saga uncompetitive on the heels of Hannu Lintu’s recording, in which we experience the music as if it is being fed us from a loom laden with colours and with increasing momentum. Part of the problem here is Linn’s intentionally forensic sound; Lintu lets the cymbal scrapes smooth over some of En saga’s tricky early junctions but here they sound awkward and we’re close enough to the string ‘screen’ of the opening pages to notice its tiny blemishes. Likewise, the engineering spotlights the cor anglais in The Swan of Tuonela clinically in a piece that can take some mist on the lens.
It is good to hear the King Christian II Suite – direct and enchanting Sibelius – but again we could do with greater atmosphere and style. Pietari Inkinen’s New Zealand Symphony Orchestra demonstrate better the bounce and naturally chattering winds in the Nocturne, while Søndergård’s Elegy could be more prayerful without necessarily sacrificing the coolness he favours (Mackerras used to find a wonderful atmosphere here). Unsurprisingly, it’s the Ballade that comes off best: it trips along with a thrilling edge and the Linn sound makes the bass drum shake the floorboards. Having seen Søndergård conduct some electrifying live Sibelius, I feel sure that he needs different sonic and orchestral characteristics for it to work on record.