Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week – Sibelius Symphonies
This is one the world has been waiting for. The Minnesota Orchestra’s partnership with the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä is a treasure of our times, especially when they play music of the frozen north. Minnesota is sufficiently remote from the rest of musical America to maintain its own sound and Vänskä, ever the iconoclast, has his own particular way of refreshing familiar scores. The start of their Sibelius cycle hit the decks with a whoosh five years ago.
Then, disaster. A hardline board, allied to an inept English manager, got into a wage dispute with the orchestra and locked them out of their place of work. Musicians were left without pay and health cover for 15 months. Their only sustenance was the loyalty of their music director, who left no-one in any doubt where his sympathies lay When the board caved in and the manager quit, Vänskä faced the formidable task of restoring the orchestra to full strength (quite a few players had left town) and finishing the Sibelius set.
This release is the result, and it is every bit as impressive as expected. The third symphony quivers with C-major positivism, packed with melodic fragments that the composer fits together like a jigsaw. The sixth, in D-minor, is less morbid than most modern readings and sumptuously played. My only reservation is in the interpretation of the seventh symphony, where Vänskä’s principled moderation mitigates the work’s granite bleakness. It could sound a lot less comfortable, and maybe it will on fifth hearing.