Classical: Straight from the horse's mouth

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SIX ENCORES in two evenings is not bad going. And when last of these (chasing a melting Valse Triste) was the whole of Finlandia, you get some idea of the quality and scale of last weekend's enthusiastically received events in Birmingham.

This was Sibelius straight from the horse's mouth. No orchestra has received greater accolades recently for charting Sibelius than the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vanska. In particular, the Lahti has taken a fresh look at earlier versions of those scores about which Sibelius, a feverish reviser, had second, or sometimes third, thoughts - the Violin Concerto, the Fifth Symphony, En Saga - plus a clutch of his neglected scores from the 1890s, notably the tone poem The Wood Nymph, all of which featured in what amounted to a two-day residency by this orchestra, making its British debut at Symphony Hall.

Just how do Finland's conservatoires generate such polished performers? Not just the sectional playing, but subsections too, produce playing of exciting precision. Vanska's strings have extraordinary range: they can deliver a savage, rasping tone where called for, yet their pianissimos are so refined as to be barely audible.

The Wood Nymph, which followed Sibelius's Bayreuth initiation, at times teeters perilously close to Valhalla's gates - like Wagner channelled through Smetana. Karelia hovers in the background - a later highlight is an exquisitely sensual extended cello solo, ushered in by violas. The closing pages, however, feature the sort of thin rhetoric to which Sibelius soon applied the scissors. It was the rhetoric of virtuosity that he sought to escape by excising some attractive platitudinous interludes and cadenza material from the much-tautened Violin Concerto. Vanska approached the rugged first version refreshingly, with no hint of languid sentiment. What emerged, with award-winning Leonidas Kavakos as soloist, was satisfying: less silken, more rugged.

Especially magical was the slighter "Spring Song", whose glimpses of a Finlandia-like pathos drew lucid sectional playing in massed strings and brass that took the breath away, while from the less often heard Third Symphony, the Lahti drew pianissimos, part pizzicato, as mesmerisingly played as you will hear anywhere, and some enchanted, Landlerish pirouetting from lightly vibratoed flute. The untrimmed, rather Rimskian prototype En Saga of 1892 holds up strikingly in its own right - uplifted here by impeccable brass playing, an exquisite sustained clarinet solo and wondrously nervy cello fade-out.

If intriguing extracts from the earlier, less chiselled four-movement version of the Fifth Symphony dominated the afternoon, it was Vanska's superbly controlled links and build-ups, in the evening's 1919 version - always with something held in reserve - that had me on the edge of my seat. The soprano Kirsi Tiihonen missed that edgy pathos that can make "Luonnotar" so melting, but brought appeal to two of the three preceding songs. The weekend's bonus was the young, all-female Tempera Quartet, Finnish students from the Royal College, who brought rhythmic verve and personality to the finale of Sibelius's "Voces Intimae" Quartet. Sheer joy.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra's recordings of Sibelius are on BIS