This is an essential 2CD introduction to Sibelius' most characteristic and famous work. CD 1 is given over entirely to the mammoth 'Kullervo' Symphony, a dramatisation from Lonnrot's 'Kalevala' collection of oral Finnish lays. The symphony seems to create for the listener an entire bygone world and worldview, despite its late Romantic spaciousness (the 'hero', for instance, is both a rapist and incestuous). Following the title character from birth to youth to death, the young Sibelius intensifies every resource at his disposal, from sublime nature writing to clanging battle music to romantic yearning to communal grief. The interplay between orchestra and choir/soloists, between individual emotion and collective expression, is unsurpassed. Within the limits of his Romantic form, Sibelius seems the most fluid, the most open of composers - his work seems to be about germination, evolution and process, rather than form and finish. And yet. Compared to Wagner's adaptations of sagas or medieval texts (such as 'Tannhauser' or 'Parsifal'), Sibelius seems restrained, even cautious. Because he dares not plumb the kitsch Wagner defied, he rarely reaches his sublime heights.
If 'Kullervo' sees the composer at his most expansively earnest, than CD2 might be termed 'Sibelius Pops'. It's not that there is no shade here - 'Finlandia' emerges from the primordial murk into the most stirring drama; 'Tapiola' is the nearest Sibelius ever got to modernism, with its long, brooding lines, and dislocated melodic and harmonic development. But other pieces see the Finn in unexpectedly sunny mode. 'The Oceanides' is as sprightly and elusive as the nymphs it celebrates, with its gloriously fragile descending melodies and playful winds; the 'Karelia Suite' is winning pomp; 'The 'Scenes Historiques' excerpts miraculously revivify antique flavour and atmosphere. But the two 'Serenades' for violin are downright eccentric, full of the weirdest sound effects, tempo changes and melodic shifts.
Most of the (early 1970s) recordings here are definitive, especially the 'Finlandia'; conductor Paavo Berglund matching intensity with wit, colour with pace, and, in particular, bringing out the vibrancy of Sibelius's writing for wind and strings.