Jean Sibelius: Symphony Nos. 4 & 6

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé present the completion of their Sibelius Symphonies Cycle with inspiring performances of two of his most personal and characteristic works, both regarded as indispensable to an understanding of the composer.
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One American critic described Sibelius's Fourth Symphony as “dissonant and doleful” after an early performance, and the work is still an audience frightener. Yet few works are so rewarding on repeated listening; I can still recall the shock of discovering the work with a score as a teenager. What surprises me now is how much in this symphony is reassuringly familiar and readily accessible. The first movement’s scurrying development is just like a similar passage in No. 5, and there are frequent glances back to Sibelius's more overtly romantic early symphonies. One strength of Sir Mark Elder’s Hallé reading is its positivity. There's always a chink of light, a sense that normal service will eventually be resumed. You hear it minutes into the first movement, the upper strings really soaring just before the four-minute mark. And in the slow movement too, Elder subtly turning the screw until the big tune erupts, a fleeting burst of Mediterranean sunshine. It's a glorious moment. There's a hint of Mahler 6 in Sibelius's finale, Elder suggesting that things might just end happily. A really impressive performance, and what a superb orchestra the Hallé is at present. I'm fond of Barbirolli’s 1960s Sibelius cycle but the playing is alarmingly patchy in places. Elder’s Sibelius 6 is far tauter than Barbirolli's autumnal plod; this performance really sings. The serene opening is beautiful here, though Elder hints at the turbulence under the music's serene surface, the Hallé brass suggesting Debussy's La Mer at several points. There's plenty of character in the middle movements, and the finale is marvellous. Horns nail their Straussian upward swoop in style, and the closing string hymn is lovely. To my mind, this is one of the loveliest 20th century symphonies, Sibelius's “purest spring water” as enticing as any showy cocktail. As said, these are excellent performances, handsomely played and engineered. Elegant, lucid notes from Stephen Johnson seal the deal. The Arts Desk

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