The search for a state-of-the-art companion to Karajan's recordings of SIbelius - early EMI tapes with the Philharmonia and the later DG issues from Berlin - as well as those of Barbirolli with the Hallé and RPO, has not been blessed with overwhelming success. Scanning the roster of digital issues could legitimately make you wonder if any of them would be seriously missed if they had never appeared. Considering further that the Karajan and Barbirolli issues, and some single issues (e.g. Szell's No. 2) remain competitive in terms of their recorded sound, which of the digital issues are going last the distance as public and critical standards for the next 50-60 years?
I am not persuaded that the quality of e.g. Ashkenazy, Blomstedt, Oramo, Järvi, Rattle, Vanska and others makes them serious rivals in the long haul to the acknowledged master recordings from the analog era. But the issue I have chosen to review is Segerstam's recording on Chandos, with the Danish Radio Orchestra. His recording in Helsinki did not convince me any more than those in my list above - excellent, but not conspicuously outstanding. So what, if anything, is the difference here?
In a nutshell, it has to do with the sense and feel conveyed by the whole sweep of the performances. The Danish orchestra have their moments of sloppy ensemble - but this is forgiveable if the right spirit prevails! (The Helsinki band was not exempt from such problems). And they lunge into their works with real enthusiasm and commitment in a manner that conveys to me a rare authenticity of music making for pleasure and nourishment of the soul. These are not quantifiable elements; I discern them, you may not. They touch me inside; they may leave you cold. But this is not a matter of opinion, that poor substitute for immersion and judgement. It is a matter that I feel attuned to Segerstam's way with the music, whereas you might feel attunement with some other conductor's way or agree with my sentiments. There are unavoidable risks for any reviewer and reader.
In short, I am reporting what I sense, without any obligation on your part to feel the same way as I do. The point of my recommendation of this recording is, accordingly, that I sense a propinquity to the kind of music making that I treasure in the Karajan/Barbirolli mould, which is so rare that I am affected, and infected.
Not all the recordings in this set serve as examples of this excellence. The quality is variable from one disk to another, but none really dips down below the level of what the competition offers. I consider No. 2, 4, 5 and 7 as well as Tapiola to stand out. Segerstam brings out the snapping-point tensions and the great upwelling of passion in No 2 particularly well. He is not rushed off his feet, even in the fast Scherzo; the colossal peaking of the brass and the contrast to the reflective or consolitary moments in the slow movement give evidence of complete command over the agogics; and the double climax and grand peroration at the end provide an exciting and ultimately deeply satisfying aural spectacle. I find the head movement of No. 5 one of the few instances of a conductor who does not make the awkward iterations here sound like clumsiness, but as the logical subsidence from the preceding turmoil.
Just how much at home he is with the mysterious Sibelius' is shown by his approproate and immaculate handling of the scoring for strings in the opening of No. 4. This is not a cello concerto, as in so many other versions, but a groping for light that moves slowly from dark, deep-breathed respiration to the ambiguous and muted serenity of the higher strings - to my mind a real test case for a conductor's understanding. Much the same applies to No. 7, where Segerstam finds the right kind of voice for the meditative, prayerful episodes in the strings and brings in the golden tones of the climactic brass without blaring or false exaltation. Finally Tapiola, which I believe to be the finest version since Karajan - and much better than his Helsinki version. The opening is rivetting in its subtle handling of the organ-like colouring of the reeds and brasses as they echo each other on the same note. At the onset of the final section, the woodwind chattering and syncopated pizzicati have just the right blend of menace and mystery; and the shattering release from the brass-laden climax in the long-drawn out high string intonation of the main theme at the end - a moment like the sudden blinding appearance of the sun over an ice-covered landscape - is apt to send shivers down my spine as in no other recording of the last 60 years.
I am happy, on the whole, with the other performances as well. But like every music lover I have my favourites, and if they are performed in a way that carries utter conviction for me, I am inclined to extrapolate my satisfaction on the rest. There is no really bad or second rate performance here, although the inspiration that I sense in the works I have just discussed, fluctuates a fair bit over the whole cycle.
These recordings have also been issued singly; and I would obviously recommend the disks which carry No. 2, 4, 5 and 7 and Tapiola to any collector not wishing to buy the box.
The sound is typical Chandos, which is to say: staggeringly rich, transparent and beautiful.