'SIBELIUS' most popular symphony (and the longest of his seven), the Second, has just appeared in its first digital recordings -- two of them, released almost simultaneously. One of these is a performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenzay on London (LDR-10014); the other is by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under the Hungarian-Israeli conductor Moshe Atzmon, on the pioneer digital label, Denon (OX-7190-ND). Both, I'm afraid, are somewhat more impressive sonically than musically -- and not impressive enough in either respect to dislodge already-established favorites.

The Tokyo orchestra's very first recording, less than a decade ago, was a performance of the Sibelikus Second conducted by Akeo Watanabe (who had received a Finnish decoration for his earlier recording of all the symphonoes with the Japan Philharmonic, formerly available here on Epic). Made for Japanese Angel and never issued here, it is a more sumptuous and more vigorous performance than Atzmon's, which seems not only understated but simply undervitalized. Moreover, the orchestra sounds thinnish and the sound itself has less brightness and punch than one expects from Denon.

Nothing thinnish about the Philharmonia, God knows, and London has given Ashkenazy a most handsome recording -- handsomely pressed, too, by Philips in Holland, as all London releases are now. I rather like the prominence Ashkenzay (and/or the engineers) give the timpani throughout the performance, but the first two movements tend to drag (the second espcially), and the great finale lacks that grand, sweeping spontaniety one wants in this music. What I enjoyed most about this release was the fresh information on the Symphony offered in Lionel Salter's annotation.

The choice versions of this popular symphony remain the older and far less costly recordings by the Royal Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirollo (Quintessence PMC-7008) and the Concertgebuow Orchestra under George Szell (Philips Festive 6570.084).

A less familiar work by Sibelius, his early suite for strings, triangle and timpani titled Rakastava ("The Lover"), is packaged with his Valse triste and some gems of Scandinavian music for string orchestra, in performances by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the Fields under Neville Marriner, on a new Argo disc (ZRG 877; cassette KZRC 877). The oher titles are Grieg's "Two Elegiac Melodies," Carl Neilsen's "Little Suite" and Dag Wiren's adorable Serenade, a piece whose continued absence from our concert halls can only mystify anyone who has ever heard it.

This is a most convenient collection, probably the only one of its kind to bring all these lesser-known works together instead of omitting one or two in favor of Grieg's "Holberg Suite." Like all the Academy's recorded performances, these are beautifully and crisply executed. Like many of Marriner's, some of these are marked by a certain degree of blandness that makes them somewhat less convincing than some other versions of the respective works. The Wiren Serenade could do with more buoyancy, the Grieg pieces with more sumptuousness and urgency. But the Sibelius suite is given an exceptionally sympathetic reading -- and what an intriguing piece it is! -- and the Nielsen performance is stunning. The sound tends toward warmth rather than brightness, which is altogether agreeable, and it is splendidly well-balanced. Not only the London label but all those in the Decca group are being pressed in Holland now, and this is one of the happiest consequences of that company's absorption into the Polygram combine.