Mark Elder’s Hallé Sibelius series has been a leisurely affair. The first disc, containing the First and Third Symphonies, appeared in 2009, the next, featuring the Second, came out in 2013. This pairing of the Fifth and Seventh leaves just the Fourth and Sixth, and hopefully Kullervo, to complete the cycle.
The Fifth Symphony is usually seen as one of the more optimistic and outward-looking of Sibelius’s later works, certainly compared with the angst-ridden Fourth before it. But there is something rather cool, not to say downright chilly, about Elder’s approach to one of the 20th century’s greatest symphonic achievements, as though the atmosphere of the genuinely austere and implacable Seventh had permeated this work, too. It’s all played with immense care, but Elder’s view of the miraculously organic opening movement, which transforms from ambiguous exposition to hyperactive scherzo, is brisk and matter of fact, almost peremptory at times, so that the weight of the great affirmative climaxes and the sense of release when the scherzo finally takes wing don’t carry the charge they do in some performances.
The other two movements are generally more convincing, though the finale’s glorious “swan” theme is taken just a fraction too fast for my taste. The Seventh fits in rather better with Elder’s rather clipped, detached approach, with which he seems to be anticipating the world of the final tone poem, Tapiola, that came immediately after the symphony. As on the previous instalments of Elder’s cycle, a tone poem is included alongside the symphonies on the disc, though unfortunately it’s not Tapiola but the very first that Sibelius composed, En Saga. Its faux-folksy melodies and insistent rhetoric come as a bit of a shock after the formal compression and thematic economy of the Seventh, but this underlines how far Sibelius’s music travelled in 30 years, and Elder’s careful performance, the hushed final pages perfectly realised, is quite special in its own right.