I would say that of the three performances here on the Atlanta Symphony's own ASO label, two are excellent and one is good. The Seventh Symphony and Tapiola are the two outstanding efforts on the disc, while the Sixth, good as it is, just doesn't quite reach their lofty heights. Perhaps the tempo choices have something to do with this.
The Sixth features a quite briskly paced opening movement – the fastest I know of in fact. Marked Allegro molto moderato, the extended note values hold the sense of forward motion back in the introduction, and in most performances the music certainly sounds slow in its yearning and mystery and gentle sadness. Spano and the Atlanta Symphony strings present this music totally convincingly, even though their pacing is a bit pushy. In the joyous main section that follows, things continue to move along somewhat hurriedly, though the tempo is not egregiously fast. As the music begins to build toward the climax from around 3:30, the strings play with energy and bounce but still at that almost breathless pace. When the climax comes (5:45 to 6:10), it is lacking a bit in that sense of ecstatic elation that the composer clearly reaches for. The other movements go well and the Atlanta Symphony plays with commitment and precision throughout the entire work.
They also play splendidly in the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola. Both feature more centrist tempos, the latter piece coming across as the masterful work it is, as its mostly dark character emerges with vivid colors, mesmerizing exotic atmosphere, and an almost sinister inner spirit. The work is about Finland's forests, and in hearing this piece in this utterly riveting account, you stand in awe at the personality and power Sibelius gives them. I consider Tapiola among the greatest tone poems ever written. Why the composer had such doubts about it, I'll never know. This is great music presented in a great performance. The Seventh is also powerfully convincing, maybe just as convincing in its own way, though I think the symphony is, along with the First, the least compelling of the composer's seven. This rendition of the Seventh is certainly at or near the top of available versions.
In the Sixth and Seventh symphonies Pietari Inkinen (Naxos 8.572705) offers strong competition to Spano, but his Finlandia is not as substantial a filler as Tapiola. Maazel (Sony) and especially Ashkenazy (Decca) offer excellent versions of the Sixth Symphony, and Bernstein gives a thoroughly powerful rendition of the Seventh on DG, if you can deal with his slower tempos. The sound reproduction on this ASO disc is excellent and the album notes informative. Despite my minor misgivings about the Sixth, I highly recommend this disc as one of the finest collections of Sibelius works on disc.
Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings