Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957): Finlandia, Op. 26; Karelia Suite, Op. 11; Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22. Performed by Dao Kolbeinsson, cor anglais; Richard Tchaikovsky, cello; Iceland Symphony Orchestra, directed by Petri Sakari. Recorded 28th thru 31st May and 25th November, 1997. Released in 1999 as Naxos 8.554265 (LC 05537). Total playing time: 72'50".
The recordings of "Finlandia", of the "Karelia Suite" and of "The Swan of Tuonela" which can be heard here were made by Naxos as a replacement for the disk with the same works recorded by a Slovakian orchestra led by the late Kenneth Schermerhorn some ten years earlier. The new CD has the advantage of cleaner, more confident playing, a conductor who knows and understands the works thoroughly and engineering which, although by no means perfect, captures a good deal more of the fascinating details of Sibelius's scores than the earlier recording was able to. On the whole, after listening to the Iceland Symphony recording, it seemed that Sibelius's combinations of brass, percussion and woodwind were uppermost in Sakari's mind, with the strings taking a relatively minor role (despite some nice touches from the cello in the Lemminkäinen Suite). Generally, the music is not only dark and brooding, there are also plenty of episodes marked with excitement and tension, and personally I enjoyed not only the rough, raucous brass of "Finlandia" (and its beautiful, epic hymn, which has been so popular that it has even been set to the words of a Pentecostal chorus!), but also the rhythmic qualities of the outer movements of the Karelia and the more gentle descriptive passages in the Ballade as well as in "Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari". I did not hear anything "careless" about the playing, although at one or two points I felt that things were not quite as ordered and transparent as perhaps they could have been - but those were minor quibbles on a performance that certainly has great class (Sakari and the Icelanders have also recorded for other labels and certainly know what they are doing!). But while listening on Sennheiser HD600 headphones, I was confronted by the impression that the engineers, while capturing the "whole panorama" quite nicely, should probably have brought certain instruments more to the forefront in certain passages. In particular, the percussion sounded compressed and, on occasion, more like someone moving furniture around than rolling tympani. But again, these are quibbles rather than real objections, and for its price this CD is a winner.