The Sound of Sibelius

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Finland's Lahti Symphony Orchestra may lack the name-brand cache of a Berlin, London or New York Philharmonic, but it can certainly compete with the big boys when it comes to countryman Jean Sibelius. The orchestra's colorful, idiomatic playing in "The Sound of Sibelius," is this week’s Full Rotation.

Over two decades (1988-2008), Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä focused the international spotlight on this orchestra based 60 miles north of Helsinki thanks to several international tours and a series of respected recordings for Sweden's BIS label. Today, Vänskä is the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, where his authority and freshness in the core repertory have compensated for whatever glamour the mild-mannered 55-year-old may seem to lack. And he continues to record with his old band.

Comprised of new recordings and some older material, “The Sound of Sibelius” offers a sampler collection for newcomers to the composer’s orchestral music, but also something for the connoisseur, thanks to the inclusion of a few rarities. Among them is The Wood-Nymph, a melodrama that Sibelius suppressed but Vänskä revived in 1996. While it doesn't rank near the top of the Sibelian heap, it's still a delightful compelling glimpse into Sibelius' early method, with its powerful sonorities and overall moodiness. Also less familiar is Spring Song, a short early work with glimpses of Finlandia-like pathos.

Speaking of Finlandia… Even if you’ve heard that chestnut--or The Swan of Tuonela or Valse Triste--a thousand times before, Vänskä’s well-paced, detailed interpretations coupled with the Lahti band’s charismatically rough-hewn playing makes this recording worth a listen. The brasses really give the rousing Finlandia theme a punch, while the strings apply a supple lilt to the waltz rhythms of Valse Triste. Of course, not all is sheer ear candy with Sibelius either, and the Lahti musicians underscore the cool and unpredictable passages of the Lemminkäinen Suite (the Finnish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey) with equal authority and brilliance.

The Sound of Sibelius

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Osmo Vänskä, conductor

Available at Arkivmusic.com