How To Buy Sibelius' Symphony No. 5

Sibelius took three attempts at his 50th birthday symphony, finishing it in 1919. Classic FM's favourite recording of the piece was made in the swinging sixties.

Jean Sibelius composed his Fifth Symphony for his 50th birthday but it took three attempts at the work before he was happy with it. It was in the late summer of 1914 that he first started to write not only this, but his Sixth Symphony. In fact, he was forever moving ideas, even movements between the two works. He drew inspiration from pantheism and nature, especially migratory birds which he felt a great affinity with.

On April 21, 1915 he wrote in his diary, “Just before 10 to 11 I saw 16 swans – one of the greatest experiences of my life.” As a result, the swinging horn theme in the last movement is said to depict this sighting, which is borne out by a letter from his friend and confidant, Axel Carpelan, referring to “the incomparable swan hymn.” His 50th birthday fell on
December 8, 1915 and he celebrated it by conducting the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in Helsinki.

Although it was well received, Sibelius was unhappy with what was then a four-movement work. He revised it twice: in 1916, when the first two movements were amalgamated, and later in 1919. The final version received its first performance on
November 24 of that year, again under the composer’s baton in Helsinki.

During his tenure as principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle produced some magnificent recordings and his Sibelius Five is certainly one of them. Right from the outset, Rattle’s highly polished forces are on show, with the woodwind and, even more so, the brass right on the button as regards intonation and tonal quality, as well as executing the lyrical moments to a tee.

Rattle’s current orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, made its mark on this work over 45 years ago under erstwhile principal conductor, Herbert von Karajan. Although there is a trace of tape hiss and a slight constriction in sound quality, this is nevertheless awash in colour and dynamism. From an intense and expansive opening, via a gloriously controlled slow movement, through to the Finale’s shimmering strings and turbulent climax, this is an interpretation of great passion
and strength.

There are also two all-Finnish teams among the contenders. Firstly Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic: here you get the sense that this is clearly in their blood; nothing is forced, nor pronounced, and although there is some suspect intonation in the woodwinds, they impart a steely coldness that is attractive. The strings are particularly ravishing in the Andante where Berglund is also adept at pacing the music just right.

This virtue is also achieved by the other Finnish partnership of Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Highlights include some wonderfully sensitive bassoon playing in the first movement and dynamically played tremolando strings at the beginning of the last movement. This CD also contains their account of the original 1915 version that many will find an indispensable addition to their record collection.

Finally, we turn to one of this country’s finest interpreters of Sibelius’s music, Sir Colin Davis. Both he and the LSO are on top form in this live, albeit somewhat closely recorded account; so close in fact that Davis is heard humming at times! But despite this occasional distraction, each movement is beautifully crafted, with the closing pages judged to perfection.

Poor Sibelius struggled to find a formula that he was happy with, but all his deliberating paid off in the end. Vänskä’s version is a strong candidate, but Karajan’s has the edge; he and the Berliners really seem to get the heart and soul
of the work. Their interpretation will stand the test of time.


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert
von Karajan


It wasn’t just iconic pop music that was produced during the swinging sixties; Karajan’s Sibelius recording was another winning product of the era.


■ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Simon Rattle

EMI 749 717 2
■ Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Paavo Berglund
EMI 476 951 2

■ London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis

■ Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä