The Hallé’s new recordings reaffirm its thriving Sibelian tradition, matching Sir Mark Elder’s measured, often massive readings with playing excellent even in these predominantly live performances. In the Fifth Symphony Elder again leans away from the high-Romantic, Tchaikovskian Sibelius towards the spacious and structural, cool and detailed. The first movement’s opening horn calls, often bright and challenging, here sound slightly distanced, even mysterious, though the development gathers plenty of momentum, and the scherzo-style latter half is airy rather than frenetic. Restrained mystery again underlies the second movement’s quiet pizzicato opening, and its variations play out in an almost too relaxed manner. The third movement’s famous swinging theme, inspired by a flight of swans, is again more reflective than soaring, but very atmospheric. Elder builds up steadily to the final chord sequence, weighty and significant rather than shattering ‘hammer-blows’. It’s an effective, often refreshing reading, but many, looking to the younger Sibelius, may prefer a touch more dynamism, such as Elder allows En Saga.
In the Seventh Symphony, however, less popular and more problematic, his measured, detailed approach creates an impressive sense of flow among the constantly shifting tempos, with the Hallé brass and strings capturing corresponding subtleties of tone and colour.
These may not be quite the finest recordings to emerge from the recent centenary blizzard, but for me their scale, detail and atmosphere, with the immediacy they draw from the well recorded Bridgewater Hall ambiance, are preferable to more anodyne fare such as John Storgårds’s, and well worth hearing.