English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Sibelius Symphony no.7 in C major Op.105 (1924)
Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth on 2 May 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
It is good to see that, despite resuming its live schedule this autumn, the English Symphony Orchestra has continued the Music from Wyastone online series as was such a boon over 18 months of lockdown. Moreover, this latest instalment begins the ESO’s most ambitious such project – the seven symphonies (with Tapiola) by Sibelius to run across the 65th anniversary of his death next year. Starting with the Seventh Symphony is certainly a provocative gambit, and it remains to be seen whether this cycle unfolds in strictly backward chronological order.
A decisive (but not simple) test in a performance of this work is how the overall trajectory is perceived. In almost all the most successful readings, the music evolves as if intuitively – the end being implicit in the beginning more than with any symphony before or since. This was certainly true of the ESO’s account, in which the formal constituents were hardly tangible as such until after the event. Sibelius may have distilled the thematic aspect to its essentials, yet in so fusing form and content he endowed this piece with an inevitability always evident here.
Following an expectant if not unduly tense introduction, Kenneth Woods built the first main section with unforced eloquence to a first statement of the trombone chorale as provides the formal backbone. His transition into the ‘scherzo’ was less abrupt than many, while picking up energy such that the chorale’s reappearance generated the requisite momentum to sustain the relatively extended ‘intermezzo’ with its felicitous interplay of woodwind and strings. If his approach to the chorale’s last emergence seemed a fraction cautious, the latter’s intensity carried over into the searing string threnody (much emulated but not equalled by generations since) that subsided into pensive uncertainty – from where the music gathered itself one last time for a magisterial crescendo which, rightly, did not so much end as merely cease to be.
A deeply thoughtful and superbly realized performance which launches the ESO’s Sibelius cycle in impressive fashion. A pity, though, that the end-credits should be accompanied with a repeat of music heard earlier. At the close of such a piece, the rest really should be silence.
Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website