Sibelius at 150 – views and preferences

For me, one of ‘top three’ in the twentieth century … the other’s being Bartók and Stravinsky. But as ever I’m open to negotiation!

As to favoured recordings of the symphonies, I’ll get things rolling principally in the realms of analogue tape:

Symphony 1 – de Sabata (NYPO) or Stokowski and his SO

No. 2 – Beecham, BBC SO … also Toscanini (1940)

No. 3 – Bernstein NYPO; Collins, LSO; Barbirolli

No. 4 – Hannikaïnen, USSR SO, Schneevoigt, Toscanini (fast but immensely gripping)

No. 5 – Celibidache, Swedish Radio SO, Koussevitzky/Boston

No. 6 – Sixten Ehrling maybe Karajan/BPO too … and Beecham/RPO

No. 7 – Koussevitzky BBC SO, Ormandy/Philadelphia/Concertgebouw, Mravinsky/Leningrad PO

Kullervo – Berglund (Bournemouth)

and ‘cycles’? – Rohzdestvensky, Davis (Boston SO, later LSO ‘live’)

Lemminkaïnen Legends – Hannikaïnen, Segerstam (digital)

25 thoughts on “Sibelius at 150 – views and preferences

  1. Robert Roy

    Well, lots of big names there but how about a mention for Sir Alexander Gibson and the SNO?! They did so much to keep the flame burning when Sibelius was considered passe in the 50’s and 60’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dr john goss

      Well, my favourite Sibelius cycle remains the 1950s Decca Collins LSO set. I have it on LP and CD. I hope you will include Tapiola, the Oceanides, Luonnotar, the Bard in your fortcoming programming. Just for starters!


      1. Absolutely John. Tapiola is for me unmatched among 20th century tone poems – among ‘oldies’, Koussevitzky and Kajanus are tops, though Karajan, Beecham (live) and Berglund are also pretty well marvellous. A good reminder. Thank you.


  2. Sue Black

    Sorry Rob, I’m sticking with the Barbirolli box set. it’s the only box set of symphonies I would want to own and he’s the only one who does the hammer blows at the end of no 5 to my liking.


  3. Those hammer blows Sue – real bones of contention. I remember years ago when I was covering the LSO’s tour of Israel for the Independent, Colin Davis conducting the Fifth and when it came to the Symphonies closing page or so (this was in Haifa), applause broke our after the first blow, less applause after the second, less still after the third until the end when Sir C had to turn to the audience to confirm that the piece had actually finished! Hilarious. But approaching JS from another angle for a moment – do you think that our love of his music is as much to do with climate as musical taste? I sometimes think so. Best. R.


  4. I’m a big fan of the RPO / Barbirolli 2nd (Testament / Chesky). I grew up with the lighter, fleeter Jarvi / Vanska approach, so the Barbirolli seemed almost shockingly full-blooded at first. Interesting list. Will have to explore.


    1. Thanks Chris. Should have included Monteux’s wonderful LSO version of 2. You must also track down the live BBC SO Beecham version though – electrifying. You’ll love it I’m sure!


  5. Steven Swalbe.

    Rob! I am confused. When you mention top 3 of the 20th century, I would like to add that Verdi (just), Saint Saens, Puccini, Strauss and Lehar were still around. Must think about Sibelius. I think I have Maazel/Bernstein with S1, Koussevitsky (78) /Barbirolli/Davis/Toscanini with S2 (Beecham?) , Barbirolli with 3 & 7,Karajan with 4, 5 & 6 and Rattle with 5. None with 8! Heifetz (Hendel), Perlman + with op.47. All the suites, Kullervo, #Complete Karelia, op.44, Tempest with Beecham,


      1. BertieRussell

        All 3 better than Verdi and Mahler ? Have you provided a justification for this (undoubtedly controversial) verdict anywhere in your writings or your posts on this blog ? Thank you Rob.


      2. With Mahler, I’d stick to my guns Bertie. But Verdi, who just made it into the century? I’d forgotten that, I’m ashamed to say and considering he wrote the greatest opera of all time – Otello – and greatest operatic comedy – Falstaff – no, I’d rate him as an exception. Thanks for the wagging finger! Best. Rob 🙂


  6. trevorharley

    Am I the only one with a soft spot for Neeme Jarvi and the GSO? I wonder whether you’ve got to be Baltic to convey Sibelius properly, in the same way as I can’t think of any good non-English versions of any Elgar.


  7. For Sibelius cycles, Berglund’s Bournemouth is the first and generally best of his three, although the early digital Helsinki is more polished in terms of orchestral execution. Colin Davis/Boston Symphony stands the test of time beautifully, and is infinitely better than the often poorly played RCA remakes. Vänska/Lahti and Segerstam/Helsinki and Blomstedt/San Francisco are also top recommendations.


  8. John J. Davis.

    Hello Fellow Sibelians,
    As an arch Sibelius’ enthusiast for many years, my top Symphony from any ‘stable’ is the almost incomparable 2nd Symphony, Op.43. When I’ve heard this glory, I’ve no wish to hear any more music that day. I ‘currently’ have ‘sixty-one’ recordings of this masterpiece & I list my top favourites below, which could be in any order save one:
    1. Minnesota Orchestra & Osmo Vanska
    2. Philadelphia Orchestra & Eugene Ormandy
    3. BBC Symphony Orchestra & Sir Thomas Beecham
    4. London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Colin Davis
    5. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Sir John Barbirolli
    6. The ‘saved one’ that heads my personal list:
    Cleveland Orchestra & George Szell ‘live’ in Tokyo in 1970. This is an ‘edge of the seat’ affair on every listening. I was thrilled when ‘our’ Rob Cowan featured this on BBC Radio 3s ‘Essential Classics’ last year.
    I’m booked to be in Finland for the Lahti Sibelius Festival this year which includes three orchestras & five Finnish Conductors which includes all the Symphonies of JS.

    For all the latest Sibelius information, may I ask everyone to log onto:

    Best wishes to you all, John J. Davis, Newton Abbot, Devon. UK.


  9. Here is a challenge: Without repeating a conductor or an orchestra, name excellent individual recordings for all seven Sibelius symphonies that are not part of complete cycles. I think I have a pretty good list here!
    No. 1: Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic (EMI)
    No. 2: Szell/Cleveland (Sony)
    No. 3: Mustonen/Helsinki Festival Orchestra (Ondine)
    No. 4: Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra (RCA)
    No. 5: Rattle/Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI)
    No. 6: Spano/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO Media)
    No. 7: Kamu/Copenhagen Philharmonic (Scandanavian Classics)


    1. Steven Swalbe.

      S1: Maazel (VPO)
      S2: Toscanini (NBC)
      S3: Barbirolli (RPO)
      S4: Beecham (LPO)
      S5: Rattle (CBSO)
      S6: Karajan (BPO)
      S7: Järvi (GSO)

      I have them all.

      If it were Joseph Haydn, that would be rather interesting.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Interesting list (with you on the first three at the very least). Re Haydn Steven you must invest in the pioneering Max Goberman set of just under half of them (most of them early symphonies) on Sony. Sizzling, witty performances.


  11. Lindsey Johnson

    Sir Simon Rattle Sibelius Symphony No 7 recorded live in concert at the Barbican on 6 January 2022. Medici and YouTube. Life being torn and moulded from the earth,


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