In order for any performance of a work by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) to reach a level of excellence, it must display equal measures of boreal iciness and dreamy northern vistas. It helps, I suppose, that a Finnish conductor, Petri Sakari, and an Icelandic orchestra play the music on the present Naxos disc.
The cold is probably in their bones, and it's especially evident in the opening movement of the Sixth Symphony, the star of the set. There is an air of chill in the soft winds, leading to a gentle but coolly illuminated second movement, a fairly active scherzo, and a strong finale, wanting only in a touch of mystery.
Three of my comparison discs in these works were from Sir Colin Davis (RCA and Philips) and Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), the latter of whom has long been a favorite of mine. Unfortunately, making comparisons with well-established favorites may come out unfairly biased, so it's maybe no wonder I preferred them. Nevertheless, it is a measure of Sakari's skill that he more than holds his own with the other conductors, if never with quite the same characterful personality to his music-making.
Sound is another matter, and the Naxos engineers have served up a distinctive recording. It is a bit more rounded and more natural than the much older EMI recording, while not so transparent or robust as the RCA (or even the Philips). Still, this 2000 Naxos release has good range, good breadth, and good imaging, although I felt the cellos and first violins sounded a bit too close.
Overall, for its modest price, to get both the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and a fascinating filler in Sibelius's incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest seems a pretty good deal.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: