The first thing to note about this release is the extraordinary depth and richness of the recorded sound which reveals the subtlety and precision of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra playing music they clearly love. Their scurrying, tremolo strings, sonorous ascending horns and flickering flutes, so characteristic of Sibelius, could not be more impressive, yet nothing here is flashy or vulgar; the dark undercurrents of this wonderful music swirl and swarm beneath transient melodic ideas with the utmost subtlety and restraint as Segerstam builds and builds then lets his orchestra off the leash like "dogs of war".
The four Lemminkäinen Legends derive from the Kalevala, a 19C compilation of Finnish folkloric poetry and surely one of the most consistently melancholy and tragic of national epics. Segerstam's manner is ideal for these brooding tone-poems, which are now less often heard in their entirety, yet the lesser-known first two movements are no less haunting or atmospheric than the more celebrated "Swan of Tuonela" or "Lemminkäinen's Return". Goodness knows why Sibelius took any notice of the critic who lambasted the music, but he was a highly sensitive, complex personality, susceptible to criticism.
The influence of Wagner is of course most evident in the magical "Swan of Tuonela" which forms the bleakly beautiful emotional heart of this symphonic cycle. The pungent voice of the cor anglais is answered eerily by the sombre cello. After such intensity it is a relief to encounter the drive and derring-do of the last movement, exalting the warrior pride of the Finnish nobility and culminating in a stunning climax.
It is a great bonus to have Segerstam's "Tapiola" concluding the programme on this superb disc: twenty minutes of some of the strangest and most revolutionary tonal music of the 20C - "Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams" suffuse the sound-world.
Even if I did not feel drawn to this monument to Finnish national identity by virtue of my marriage to a Finnish-American, I would prize this disc as one of the finest of its kind I know. Others might remain loyal to the classic Ormandy recording but no-one could be disappointed by this newer recording in such gorgeous sound.