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on 19 March 2011
I thought I couldn't go wrong with this all-digital CD. The music, the orchestra, and the conductor are all famous and all Finnish. And it was a good price, and as new, although the recording itself is from 1993 and from St. Petersburg's Philharmonia Hall, with an audience (albeit a reasonably quiet one, but the first movement of the 2nd symphony gets a not-very-stifled cough just seconds from the end).

On the whole, my expectations were met, but I found myself bemoaning some shortcomings:
The orchestra is very good, but, forgive me, it does not sound the best of world-class: this shows in a rather creaky trumpet (twice in the 5th), and a rather hesitant viola / 2nd violin entry (again in the 5th). It emphasises how essential precision is, when conveying a sense of easy flow, although to be fair, Saraste guides the orchestra through some very tricky passages with both grace and authority. I would love to know why he chose to have the opening horn in the first movement of the 5th stating the motto theme so sloppily ("aar-araraah"), while for the rest of the piece everyone plays "aah-hah-hah-haaah", which is how it should be. There are also a couple of unnecessary sudden diminuendos in the 2nd, besides quirks of tempo and a tendency to take violin passages excessively legato by default. For me the 5th is the better performance of the two, if only because it seems less restrained, more passionate.

My biggest criticism (as usual) is reserved for the balance engineer, who has seemingly placed the brass section almost out in the foyer and at times seems to have the horn section hiding under thick blankets: well it gets cold in St. Petersburg...but it's not what you want in pieces that are gloriously brassy at times, and especially at orchestral climaxes when they should be cutting through the general mush, like a pukko through puuro, and sadly at crescendi there is rather a lot of mush, not helped by timpani that are a bit too boomy.

As for the readings, Saraste's are pensive and insightful, and all too often a bit measured and understated. Well, on the whole, Finns are like that.

Although I have heard both pieces many times in live performances, my benchmark recording is still the Scottish National Orchestra (under Sir Alexander Gibson): that period was a landmark in their transformation from a so-so provincial orchestra to a seriously talented, internationally acclaimed pairing. I think the FRSO is still in need of a Gibson.
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on 15 November 2013
I have just discovered Sibelius properly and this is a superb recording of my two favourite symphonies of his wonderful work.
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