Top Ear

Soft and Bloated: Segerstam’s First Sibelius Cycle


Jeremy Lee writes

If you think Maazel’s Vienna Sibelius cycle, reviewed last week, is too driving and hard-edged for your taste, consider this set which is at the exact opposite of the spectrum.  Segerstam opts for a rich, rounded sonority, almost completely without edges or crudeness, and he draws an impossibly creamy and luxurious sound from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, aided by Chandos’ house acoustic (a very reverbrant and warm acoustic, sometimes muddy in the bass).  He also chooses a generally expansive tempo for all the symphonies (though not as protracted as Bernstein/DG).  The difference between Segerstam’s and Maazel’s approach is blatantly obvious when you compare their Thirds:  Maazel’s is driving and alert, while Segerstam takes his own sweet time reveling in upholstered sonority and lingering in long-lined phrasing.

The problem with this approach, however, is that you will miss some of the rhythmic alacrity and rawness of tone that not only Maazel but interpreters as diverse as Colin Davis (Philips), Karajan (DG/EMI), Blomstedt (Decca), and Bernstein (DG/Sony) bring to the music.  Sibelius, being a relatively economical orchestrator, mainly directs the rhythmic energy of his writing towards the timpani, brass and lower strings, three parts which are quite often swamped with Segerstam.  And even if they can be heard through the duvet of strings, they can be frustratingly edgeless and tepid.  Thus the wild outburst that launches the trio back to the scherzo of the Second fails to shock; the low string shudders in the finale of the Fifth are all but inaudible; and the Seventh’s apotheosis is less than convincing (and why oh why does he fade off the strings at the very end when Sibelius clearly says not to!).

Segerstam remade these symphonies with the Helsinki Philharmonic for Ondine, and while the slowish tempo has not changed a lot, more attention is put on rhythm and attack, and the Helsinki Philharmonic’s smaller sonority allows for clearer textures.  Ondine’s clean sonics, too, are less interventionist than Chandos’.  At Brilliant Classics’ budget price, this set is interesting to investigate, but ultimately if you seek a Sibelius cycle to live with, you can do better.


  • Album name:  Sibelius:  The Symphonies
  • Performers:  Leif Segerstam (conductor);  Danish National Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  Brilliant Classics 8867
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  4:45:15

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

2 thoughts on “Soft and Bloated: Segerstam’s First Sibelius Cycle

  1. This review is just dishonest. The fact is these are some of the powerful, grand and massive performances of Sibelius ever done. The recorded sound is crystal clear and truly enveloping. The brass is blazing and volcanic in the climaxes. These are romantic readings for sure. They are not soft -they are heroic and not bloated but a life force of titanic strength!

    • Dear Clark,

      Thank you for your dissenting opinion. However different our views on this set, de gustibus non est disputandum. In my review I was completely honest as to my opinion on these performances, just as you are honest about your praise for them.


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