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Insightful recordings of Sibelius from 1930s stand the test of time

By and large I find devout Sibelians a tolerant species.

They can be relentless in the pursuit of performances of pieces by their favourite Finnish composer, and intensely partisan when discovering new recordings of the seven symphonies. But what I don't hear much of is the endless ear-bashing that commonly occurs with music by Austro-Germanic composers and their interpreters. These fans are more civilised in their response and don't rubbish one another's taste.

I know devotees of Leif Segerstam's massive approach which, in concert, can be seismic. I know others who can't see past Osmo Vanska's forensic way with Sibelius, especially in the first of his two recorded cycles, the one with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. And the versions by John Barbirolli and Alexander Gibson are still possessed, played and loved by many.

I have a broader view: I'll listen to anything an insightful conductor has to say about Sibelius, either through conversation or music-making. When he was in Scotland, I shared countless meetings with Vanska, where he went right under the bonnet of the music, analysing everything from texture to sonority, and how to realise with an orchestra the grain of the music to secure an authentic sound.

I've never met that man-mountain of a conductor, Leif Segerstam, but I'll never forget his amazing Sibelius performances in Glasgow, particularly his version of the Fifth Symphony, where, in the final climb to the climactic release of the "crane" theme, I thought I was going to scream at the visceral catharsis I experienced when he finally let it go.

At the moment I'm working through an incomplete set of the symphonies which carry their own authenticity. These performances by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are largely studio recordings, from 1930 and 1932. The conductor, one of the first great interpreters of Sibelius's symphonies, is the Finn, Robert Kajanus, a very interesting champion and close friend of Sibelius. Kajanus commissioned En Saga and brought Sibelius himself into conducting. In terms of insights into pacing, texturing and flexibility of tempo in Sibelius, his recordings (now on Naxos) transcend their great age. There's no Fourth, Sixth or Seventh Symphony in the set: Kajanus died in 1933, before the recording project could be completed. They've been out before, but I've never possessed them until now. I think all Sibelius devotees will want to refer to them.

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