I bought this CD because I wanted to own once again a performance of the marvelous Karelia Overture, the Opus 10 of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Unlike the Karelia Suite, which has been recorded many times, the Overture is neglected. In the 1970's, Eugene Ormandy put out a first rate rendition with the Philadelphia Orchestra when they returned to RCA to do their recording, but I don't believe that it has ever been released on CD. This recording by Neeme Jarvi is pretty much one's only plausible option.
The Overture is part of a group of works commissioned from the 27 year old composer by a local group of students, the Wiborg Society of Helsinki. They wished to celebrate the history of Karelia, a locale that lies between Finland and Russia. Both countries have claimed the windswept territory as their own at various times. Sibelius undertook the project with gusto, producing the first of what would be a long series of incidental music. However, not all of the music he wrote for the Karelia event was actually published. The composer drew up a three-movement Suite, which became the Op. 11 that we know so well today. He also prepared the Karelia Overture for publication as his Op. 10.
Happily, the Jarvi choice for the Overture is a good one. He takes the pacing at a slightly faster tempo than I recall with the Ormandy. The Gothenburg Symphony plays with both force and finesse, and Jarvi brings out many of the fine little touches that populate virtually every score of the Finnish genius. The renowned melodies of the Suite are adroitly revealed in the fresh garb of the Overture. The brass section, especially the full-throated trumpet, is particularly brilliant.
Two other pieces are on this CD. The Symphony No. 5 is very good, particularly in the airy second movement, where the Gothenburg's woodwinds really shine against the pizzicato strings. The conductor takes liberties with the tempi throughout the movement, shifting gears quickly in spots. I think what he does enhances the theme and variations format, but such a free- wheeling interpretation may not be to everyone's taste. The third movement is played too fast. The famous horn tune is richly handled and perfectly integrated with the off-the-beat woodwind theme, but the tricky ending is too terse and not successful at such a clip. Overall, in my mind Jarvi's efforts in the symphony are eclipsed by Bernstein's interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic.
The "Andante Festivo" comes late in Sibelius' output. Originally written for string quartet in 1922, the composer later arranged it for string orchestra and tympani. The piece's arching, long-lined, regal melody is gorgeous, with a deeply religious feel, recalling what the great conductor Serge Koussevitzky once said of the composer's seventh symphony, that it is "Sibelius' Parsifal." Jarvi and the Gothenburg play it with conviction and fervor, and the tempo is just right, allowing the majesty of the thematic material to bloom fully.
Withal, the recorded sound is absolutely first class.