Segerstam's Sibelius is something else — the far side of the moon. If Bertini believes in the strengths of restraint, Segerstam is clearly an advocate of throwing caution to the winds. There are "classical-minded" Sibelians (Collins, Davis, Osmo Vanska) who emphasize balance and proportion, and refuse to indulge the drama and emotionalism of the scores. But Segerstam's approach is volatile, febrile, disruptive and (sometimes too) intensely disquieting. In the big climaxes, there's an almost elemental sense of uncontrollable powers unleashed. In Segerstam's interpretations, restless currents roil beneath the calmest surfaces.
This is Segerstam's second go-round with these works. In the ‘90's he recorded a complete cycle with the Danish National Orchestra for Chandos, and some of those performances sounded somewhat arbitrary and unconvincing. But in the time between that cycle and this one, Segerstam's understanding and sympathies have deepened and intensified. These performances may be extreme, but they never sound mannered or willful. The orchestra seems composed of true believers, supporting Segerstam's conceptions with thrilling unanimity. Their playing sounds completely fresh and spontaneous — remarkable, given the countless times this orchestra must have performed each of these works. Segerstam, who teaches orchestral conducting at the Sibelius Academy, clearly knows whereof he speaks. His ability to communicate is never in doubt.
Even so, not all these performances attain the same high level. Symphonies 1, 3, 4, and 7 are complete successes, although 3 sounds more highly contrasted and dramatic than I'm used to hearing it. There may be those who, like me, are used to hearing the first movements of Symphonies 2 and 5 rendered with more control and deliberation. I was at first a little dismayed by how much turbulence Segerstam finds in that music. But I think none will complain about the power and conviction of what happens thereafter. I'm not quite so sure about the Sixth. It's clear that Segerstam wants to make more of it than usual. In his hands it certainly doesn't sound serene or glacially beautiful. Still, I'm not sure how well Segerstam's more Romantic approach works for this music. In the end, it's more interesting than compelling. For me, the one misfire is the Violin Concerto, a turgid and overemphatic performance that never gets off the ground.
So, I grant you, this is a risky proposition, But if you respond to the music of Sibelius, Segerstam is definitely worth a serious listen. If I've put you off purchasing the complete set, you should know that the cycle has also been issued on single CDs. I suggest you sample either the pairing of the First and Seventh or the Fourth with (a terrific performance of) the tone poem Pohjola's Daughter. One thing I know: you won't be the least bit bored by what you hear.
Symphonies 1, 3, 4, 7:
Symphonies 2, 5: