One of Simon Rattle's first big recording assignments for EMI was a by-then obligatory cycle of the symphonies of Sibelius. Most postwar English conductors with an eye toward an international career had already done a cycle -- Anthony Collins for Decca in the '50s, John Barbirolli for EMI in the '60s, Colin Davis for Philips in the '70s -- and it was Rattle's turn in the '80s. Listening to the recordings as they were released then and now again in EMI's special import, one has to ask: did Rattle enjoy the assignment?
Perhaps not: a sense not of dedication but of determination, not of excitement but of endurance, not of striving but of slogging pervades these performances. With the faithful if not always capable City of Birmingham Symphony doing his bidding, Rattle rushes tempos too hard in expositions, making them seem not inevitable but invented, pushes dynamics too hard in climaxes, making them seem not ineluctable but forced, and pulls themes too far in developments, making them seem not irreducible but contrived. Of course, it doesn't help that Rattle doesn't seem entirely in control of either the music or the orchestra. Too often, the music seems slightly ahead of him, as if he did not always know what was coming next, an interpretive stance that is less thrilling than unnerving. And too often, the Birmingham players appear not only over their heads in the notes -- listen to the tentative woodwinds in the Third's Andantino con moto, or the wayward brass in the climax of the Second's Finale, or especially the slipshod strings in the Fourth's Il tempo largo -- but also out of their league in the content -- the First's tragedy, the Fifth's heroism, and the Seventh's pantheism are all missing in action. Nor does EMI's early digital recording help: the music sounds distinctly processed with artificial highs and exaggerated lows. In short, for an English Sibelius cycle, stick with Collins or Davis or, best of all, Barbirolli.