Sibelius Symphonies 5 & 7

Author: 
Stephen Johnson

Sibelius Symphonies 5 & 7

  • Symphony No. 5
  • Symphony No. 7

If the Fifth Symphony seems at first to be in a bit of a hurry – too fast for the woodwind to sound entirely comfortable with their first phrases – everything soon falls into place. Before long the pace is really gripping, thanks especially to some charged string playing (the string figures after the first tutti climax sound like waves on a choppy sea). For a while it’s all very encouraging: a suitably plaintive bassoon solo; an elemental crescendo as the first movement begins its miraculous transformation into accelerating scherzo. But then, at the height of that climax, why the jarring accents on the trombones (they’re actually marked f to almost everyone else’s ff)? Why the weird sf and momentary ritardando on the strings later on where the oboe announces swaying flute and bassoon chords (Sibelius asks for ppp)?
This penchant for heavy underlining is typical of both performances – not, fortunately, during the superb horn theme in the finale (in fact that’s a shade smoother than usual), but at other key points: the horns’ whoop at the final climax of No. 7, or the crude extra crescendo Berglund imposes on the final trombone chord. It’s also expressed in big ritardandos: heralding the first return of the trombone theme (through swirling, stormy strings) in No. 7, or at the final return of the Fifth’s horn theme – yes, Sibelius does mark it Largamente assai (“Very broad”), but I can’t believe he had this soft-focus Hollywood sunset in mind.
It’s frustrating, because Berglund knows how to create a mood of tense expectation and hold the attention over large spans. My recommendation for No. 5 remains unchallenged, however: the young Simon Rattle with the Philharmonia on EMI – a freshness and sense of organic inevitability which his later recordings rarely capture. In No. 7 the choice is harder, but if it must be a stereo-age version, the 1967 Karajan is still very persuasive, as long as you can cope with a little tape-hiss.'

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