Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 4 & 6 review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the month

Mark Elder and the Hallé bring a sympathetic, powerful character to Sibelius’s enigmatic symphonies in this final disc in their symphony cycle

It has taken Mark Elder and the Hallé more than a decade to complete their survey of the Sibelius symphonies. In bringing together the two most enigmatic works in the cycle as their final disc, they invite direct comparison with what are perhaps two of the most celebrated Sibelius symphony recordings ever released, Herbert von Karajan’s 1960s versions of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. But even if Elder’s readings cannot summon up the harrowing bleakness that Karajan brought to the Fourth, or match his uncluttered tonal beauty in the Sixth, they do have an often powerful character of their own, while the Hallé’s playing in both symphonies is outstanding.

Hallé/Elder: Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 4 & 6 album art work
Hallé/Elder: Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 4 & 6 album art work Photograph: Publicity Image

After Elder’s rather cool, detached Fifth Symphony four years ago, one might have expected him to be even more severe in his handling of the Fourth, whose dark introversion is generally accepted as a reflection of personal and musical crises in Sibelius’s life at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, even if regarding it as a personal reaction to the modernism of Schoenberg seems to me to be going too far. In fact, he makes it sound less uncompromising than many conductors, even finding comforting warmth in some of its cadences, and a flash of exuberance in the scherzo.

Elder doesn’t offer any easy solutions to its mysteries, any more than he solves all the very different puzzles of the Sixth, with its radiant modality and textural transparency, yet sometimes bewildering changes of direction and register. But his two performances sit well together, and anyone who has been patiently following the development of this cycle should be well satisfied with this final instalment.

This week’s other pick

Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra began their Sibelius cycle for Alpha last year at the beginning, with the First Symphony, and they follow it now with the Second, paired with the suite Sibelius extracted from his incidental music to Adolf Paul’s 1898 play King Christian II. On this evidence, Rouvali is a rather impulsive, excitable Sibelius conductor, favouring extremes of tempi and of dynamics, and regularly pushing the brass to the front of the sound picture. This is very much a view of the Second Symphony as descended from Tchaikovsky, rather than as the forerunner of later Sibelius; it’s certainly a valid approach, but may not be to all tastes.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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