This new issue features a remarkable conductor most of us probably have never heard of – Owain Arwel Hughes. Coming from Wales, he has conducted many of the finest orchestras of the world and is now principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic, accumulating an impressive discography mainly of British, Scandinavian and Russian composers. His current project is to record all seven Sibelius symphonies with the Royal Philharmonic and this is the second issue of that set.
The Second, the most famous of the seven, was an overnight success at its premiere in 1902. It catapulted Sibelius into fame as one of the best composers of the 20th century, a patriot and the pride of his native Finland. It is a glorious work in the sunny key of D major. Although there are dark moments, the finale, with two themes alternating in a long, gradual crescendo in 3/4 time ascending towards a climax when, after a long-held minor motif suddenly turns into major in fortissimo, is absolutely magnificent.
Symphony No.4 in A Minor is completely different. It’s a deeply personal statement and the conductor must feel, indeed inhabit, its emotional climate. In the words of Sibelius, it is completely devoid of the “compositional tricks or circuses” composers use to thrill audiences. Right at the outset a deep, sad cello theme slowly develops until stopped by forceful chords on the brass and then a forlorn, echoed horn call as we are enter a misty, dark, barren, somewhat frightening territory. There is some happiness, like a lovely scherzo second movement, but the sky quickly darkens, diminishing it into oblivion.
The overall effect is puzzling, but with repeated hearings its many hidden beauties come out and, according to some critics, it is the most beautiful of Sibelius’ symphonies.