SIBELIUS:  Symphony No. 6 in D Minor Op. 104.  Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105.  The Tempest Suite No. 2, Op. 109, No. 3
Iceland Symphony Orch/Petri Sakari, cond.

NAXOS 8.554387  (B) (DDD) TT:  71:71

A year or so back, I was curtly dismissive of Symphonies 1 and 3 from Iceland, full of exaggerated gestures and dislocated tempi, recorded by Naxos in February 1997. Whatever happened at Reykjavik during the next three years, Petri Sakari and his players recorded one of the best integrated performances you'll ever hear of Sibelius' elusively beautiful Sixth Symphony on February 11-12, Y2K; a Seventh Symphony of intellectual sinew as well as expressive substance the next month, and in between a lovely performance of the second suite from incidental music for a 1926 Copenhagen production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Tapiola (and the Overture plus Suite No. 1 from The Tempest) completed Sibelius' farewell to the orchestra. True, he made revisions as late as 1939 to the Four Legends from 1895. But an Eighth Symphony—how much there ever was of it—he burned in the fireplace at J”rvenp””, his home near Helsinki, along with early works that would have included the 1892 cantata-cum-tone poem Kullervo, had he not needed the money and sold the manuscript in 1922.

Sakari adopts an unhurried opening tempo in the Sixth (marked Allegro molto moderato) that yields phrasing of exceptional beauty at the same time it keeps the speed-up and climax later on from merely sounding like more-of-same. The "slow movement" is marked Allegretto moderato—a lavender-tinted skyscape if you will, before the pervasive darkness of Finnish winter descends—followed by a fanciful, almost fantastical Poco vivace scherzo, capped by the work's longest movement. Moderation in Sakari's case makes for a smoother transition later on to a more animated expression, until the symphony suddenly hushes, then moves slowly, almost reluctantly, to a D-minor chord as beautiful as it is surprising, and as "right" here as I've ever heard in a recording or live performance.

I should add, however, that a veteran colleague (who cherishes Sibelius as dearly) agrees with a recent overview in Gramophone that singles out Herbert Blomstedt's San Francisco recording as "best." I don't know it and cannot therefore comment. But Sakari's and V”nsk”'s (the latter in a complete recording on BIS/MHS of all seven symphonies) are the most persuasive in my experience since Sixten Ehrling's from Stockholm, back in the monaural '50s, when Mercury pressed his readings of the Sibelius canon on the noisiest vinyl this side of Italy.

Sakari's Seventh is cut from the same broadcloth as his Sixth without sacrifice of cogency—a tough piece to organize without marching through it. His and V”nsk”'s overall timings differ by only three seconds—nearly 23 minutes long, whereas Beecham did the job in just over 20, on his excellent stereo recording for EMI in 1955. Nothing, though, lags or drags in either performance by the two Finns who studied with Jorma Panula—Suomi's answer to Franco Ferrara (and then some) as a maestro di maestri. Eight brief excerpts from The Tempest (Suite No. 2 is a superior confection except for the storm that concludes No. 1) receive the same painstaking care and affection that Sakari and his players bring to the symphonies.

Veteran buyers will rejoice to see that Paul Myers produced this disc, Godard Lieberson's successor at Columbia/CBS before Sony bought the package. Sound is full-bodied, spacious without echo, and finely balanced without detracting from the musical message. Now let us hope that Symphonies 2, 4 and 5 will be on the Iceland Orchestra’s 2000-level of accomplishment.

Did I remember to say highly recommended?

R.D. (Jan. 2001)