Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sibelius at 150 (Part 4): Delving the Fourth

In his obituary for Sibelius, published in the December 1957 issue of The Gramophone, Harold Rutland wrote: "The Fourth Symphony, enigmatic though it may be at first hearing, probably contains the quintessence of the composer's genius."  With this I would wholeheartedly agree. The Fourth, in my estimation, is Sibelius' greatest and most inspired symphonic conception, albeit less-readily accessible to the average listener than many of his other more widely-celebrated works, sometimes bewildering and often difficult to comprehend. It is also the composer's most singularly personal statement on an orchestral scale.

Written between the spring of 1910 and February of 1911 following a prolonged period of stress about his health (a cancerous tumor of the throat for which Sibelius underwent a pair of risky operations), the Fourth is the composer's walk through the shadow of the valley of death. The music seems to rise up like Dante's path out of the Inferno through Purgatory, a dreary landscape of foreboding ice and glacier, oppressive lowering mists and impassable canyon walls. Yet, ultimately, taken as a whole, the Fourth suggests a journey from the gloom of existential despair towards something akin to hope.

This is not to say that the work requires a programatic interpretation to be approached or understood.
For all its outward austerity, the Fourth is actually quite straightforward in terms of structure and thematic organization. The motivic germ of the symphony--the idea from which all else grows and flows-- is the tri-tone interval, the so-called "diminished fifth." (A famous and familiar example of this interval is heard in the first two notes of Maria from Bernstein's West Side Story; the melodic leap from 'Ma' to 'ri' clearly spells out the tri-tone.) In Sibelius' Fourth, it is this interval, incorporated into a craggy four-note melodic figure (c, d, f-sharp, e) that we first hear, rising up from the deeps of divided double basses, celli, and bassoons. Once a listener gets this tangy tetrachord into her head, she will begin to notice it everywhere throughout the piece. The entire symphony is built on these first four notes, which, although constantly varied, rearranged, and disguised, form a principle of contunuity--a single, long, unbroken line-- that ties the whole work together.

Thus, structure proceeds from theme, which, in itself, puts this symphony outside the realm of the conventional. The problem for any would-be interpreter is how to reveal the development of this highly dissonant thematic material in a way that is also lyrical and musically satisfying. As such, it may be instructive to compare recordings by several great 20th century conductors who revisited the work several times over the course of their careers; Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, and Sir Colin Davis.

[EMI 7243 5 57754 0  5 (2004 re-issue)]

Herbert von Karajan

Karajan's classic mono recording for EMI dates from 1954, and was highly praised by the composer himself. The reading is darkly atmospheric, weighty, and dramatically paced, yet the conductor also emphasized the essential lyricism of the score. This counter-intuitive 'coving off' of the sharper edges without sacrificing transparent structural integrity or introspective depth may well be what Sibelius so admired in Karajan's performance.

The interpretive history of almost any 'new music' that survives long enough to become part of the standard repertory may be characterized by a growing sense of understanding, familiarity, and comfort on the part of performers and audiences alike. Premiere performances can often seem rough and unmusical, while subsequent exectuion becomes more refined, often to a point where the piece loses its original power to shock or surprise altogether. In 1954, the Fourth was little more than forty years old, and had a history of decidedly mixed critical response, yet Karajan revealed this symphony to be not only a great work, but a beautiful one.

[DG (Originals) 457-748-2 (n.d)]

Karajan returned to the score in 1968, recording the Fourth with the Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Gramophone. This later interpretation seems overly-prettified, emphasizing surface-deep beauties at the expense of structural lucidity. This is more of an impressionistic approach to the music, and though the performance has a certain dark allure, the all-important long-line is lost in the indulgence of the moment.

[Decca (London) 430 778-2 (1991 compilation)]

Lorin Maazel

Maazel's marvelous 1968 reading of the Fourth with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca is one of the finest ever committed to disc, almost perfectly balancing structural clarity with lyric accessibility, and sheer visceral power. Few conductors have ever conveyed the opening movement's mood of disquiet and looming existential terror so effectively. Under Maazel's direction the score is realized both as a masterpiece of compositional architecture and a perpetually-intriguing post-romantic soundscape. (I have not heard Maazel's recordings with the Pittsburgh Symphony for Sony.)

[Philips (LP) 9500 143 (1977)]

Sir Colin Davis  

Seldom has there been a more lucid, purposeful performance than Davis' 1977 reading with the Boston Symphony for Philips. Demonstrating an all-too-rare understanding of the spatial aspects of the score, the conductor emphasizes lyricism without sacrificing structural clarity. Though it may lack the sheer dramatic impact of Maazel's performance, the long-line is here illuminated, not merely within each individual movement, but throughout the score as a whole. This approach pays dividends, especially in the slow third movement, which few interpreters have ever rendered with such engaging cogency.

[RCA (Red Seal) 09026-68183-2 (1996)] 

By contrast, Davis 1996 reading with the London Symphony for RCA is bewildering to say the least. More adventuresome but, to my ears, far-less musical than the 1977 Philips recording, Davis seems obsessed with spatial gimmickry and non-essential details of orchestration, such as the placement of the muted distantamento brass choir, or the use of chimes, glockenspiel, or both in the finale. This later reading strikes me as either the work of a genius or a mad man, and I have yet to decide which.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sibelius at 150 (Part 3): Eugene Ormandy conducts Sibelius

Sony (Masters Series) 88875108582 (8-CD box set) (2015 compilation)
Eugene Ormandy conducts Sibelius
Isaac Stern (violin)
Dylana Jensen (violin)
Louis Rosenblatt (English Horn)
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Philadelphia Orchestra
Eugene Ormandy

Released in 2015, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth on December 8, this very-welcome entry in Sony's on-going Masters series features most--not all-- of Ormandy's Sibelius
recordings made for Columbia/CBS in the 1950s and '60s and for RCA in the 1970s and '80s. The new 8-disc box set comprises all the material found on Sony Japan's 3-disc set from 2012 (Ormandy conducts Sibelius (SICC 1581-3)) along with the later RCA issues, offering, for the first time under one cover, a fascinating--and properly contextualized-- overview of the beloved maestro's interpretive evolution vis-á-vis some of the greatest and most-familiar music in the standard repertory.

Sony's packaging is the same by-now familiar bare-bones affair found throughout the Masters series. Each disc comes in its own sturdy cardboard sleeve with essential information on artists and recording dates. There are no liner notes and no accompanying booklet. Re-mastered in Sony's 24-bit high-resolution audio, the spruced up sonics are magnificent, giving these performances their due as seldom before. I was particularly impressed by the greatly-improved sound of the early-digital RCA recordings, which originally struck me (back on early-80s-era LPs) as rather underwhelming with harsh trebles, raucous basses, and bewilderingly muddy middle ranges. No more! Listen, particularly, to the surprisingly well-turned 1980 reading of the Violin Concerto with the young Dylana Jensen, a vital, probing, beautiful, richly-detailed recording that impresses on many levels.

A virtual treasure trove for the comparative listener, the set includes multiple recorded versions of several works to which Ormandy returned time and time again. There are two iterations of the Violin Concerto; Issac Stern's 1969 reading for CBS along with the 1980 Jensen rendition for RCA--though, rather surprisingly, not David Oistrakh's far-superior 1959 performance (available for a time on Sony Essential Classics, and more recently in the Sony Originals series (88697858162 (2011 re-issue)). Two readings each of the First Symphony (CBS, 1962; RCA, 1978), the Second (CBS, 1957; RCA, 1972), and Seventh (CBS, 1960; RCA, 1975); two complete readings of the Karelia Suite (CBS, 1968; RCA, 1975), two versions of The Swan of Tuonela (CBS 1960; RCA 1973), Valse Triste (CBS 1959; RCA 1973), and En Saga (CBS 1963; RCA 1975), as well as no fewer than three different versions of Finlandia (CBS, 1968; RCA, 1972, and the version with mixed chorus, recorded with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (in a rather prissy-sounding English translation) for CBS in 1959). In addition, the set includes Ormandy's very-fine stand-alone RCA renditions of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies (1978 and 1975 respectively), and tone poems Pohjola's Daughter and The Oceanides (both from 1976). These latter works, along with the Fourth and Seventh symphonies were released together on a highly-regarded album from 1983 (RCA 38124), subsequently re-issued by RCA Japan and later by Arkiv Music.

One comes away from these recordings with a sense that Ormandy approached these very-familiar works with a constant freshly-renewed, and often very different attitude, never settling on or sticking to one 'definitive' interpretation. The early CBS recordings of the Second and Seventh symphonies emphasize drama over introspection, coming off as passionate, powerfully driven, virtually explosive. No other conductor's interpretation of the Seventh is quite like Ormandy's 1960 reading--not even Ormandy himself in 1975, which feels, if not more 'conventional' by comparison, certainly more inward looking, autumnal and deliberate, yet still eminently musical at every turn. The classic 1957 recording of the Second (available for many years on CBS' budget imprint Odyssey, and later on CD in a commodious coupling with the Seventh as part of the Sony Essentials series) still trumps the 1972 RCA reading for drive and energy, though the later reading is highly detailed with its own moments of beauty and awe.

Wholeheartedly recommended!!!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sibelius at 150 (Part 2): The Choral Music

Ondine ODE 1260-2D (2015)
Sibelius: Complete Works for Mixed Chorus
Heikki Seppanen/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Released in the spring of 2015 in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth on December 8th, this 2-disc set from the Finnish label Ondine features fine performances by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Heikki Seppanen in beautiful, up-to-date recorded sound. The album is packaged in a handsomely lithographed slipcase, accommodating a standard-width gate-folding jewel case, and a glossy 60-page booklet with complete texts including English translations, and an extended historical/biographical essay by Sakari Ylivuori.

Choral music was, more or less, a sideline for Sibelius, and this rather eclectic assemblage of music doesn’t represent a coherent “body of work” in the unmistakable way the symphonies and tone poems do. In any case, listeners expecting the same level of striking originality and formal innovation are bound to come away disappointed. What one gets here is, for the most part, a diverse mish-mosh of un-opused odds and ends, small-scale works commissioned for special occasions and events, a few tantalizingly brief pieces hardly more than gnomic fragments, with, here and there, the inspired curiosity. Throughout, one is struck by the fact that Sibelius’ most original and stylistically adventuresome contributions to the a cappella choral repertory were made in the early part of his career, before the turn of the 20th century, not, as one might expect, in the 1910s around the time of the 4th and 5th symphonies and the striking cantata for chorus and orchestra My Own Land Op. 92 from 1919, or the autumnal 1920s with awe-inspiring works such as the 7th Symphony, Tapiola and the incidental music for The Tempest.

The collection is book-ended by two of the composer’s “greatest hits”, Rakastava (The Lover) from 1893-98 at the beginning of the first disc, and, at the end of the second, two different choral versions of Finlandia from Opus 26 of 1899, in F major and A-flat major, both arranged in 1948. In between, listeners are treated to fascinating rarities like the Three Songs for American Schools from 1913—setting of English texts no less!— a charming trio of Christmas songs—surprisingly conservative for having been composed in the late 1920s—and three different arrangements of the tunefully Brahms-ian sarcred triptych Carminalia from 1898.

Language may, indeed, be a barrier to appreciation—though I think one could argue that a poor performance of a work in any language is just as daunting an obstacle. Badly enunciated English spoils Holst and Britten no more for an Anglophone than an unfamiliarity with German or Danish throws up a scrim in front of Brahms or Nielsen. Far more instructive and rewarding is a consideration of this repertory in the context of its musical time and stylistic milieu. One may discern the influences of Brahms and Bruckner, note stylistic or tonal similarities to contemporaries like Reger and Nielsen, or remark foreshadowings of the youthful Bartok.

I have yet to hear the recordings of this same repertory from the 2011 Sibelius Edition on Bis (Vol. 11 in the 13-album series), which presents the music in chronological order of composition, an arrangement that might well have benefited the Ondine program. I have had the opportunity to compare some of the alternate arrangements for chorus and orchestra (Sibelius Edition Vol. 3), as well as versions for male chorus performed by the magnificent YL Ensemble (The Voice of Sibelius (BIS CD-1433 (2008)). By and large I find the BIS performances more nuanced and subtle--listen especially to YL's magical reading of Raakastava-- and would highly recommend this latter disc as a companion to the Ondine album.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sibelius at 150 (Part 5): My favorite performances

Today (December 8, 2015) marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). I personally regard Sibelius as one of the greatest composers who ever lived--he is certainly among my very favorites (at least if the sheer number of albums in my collection is anything to judge by). This little compilation reflects my own personal experience as a collector and my own very subjective opinions formed over the past forty years. It is not meant to be exhaustive or even authoritative. I have tried to list those records that have most impressed and moved me over the decades. In the end, my purpose here is twofold; to pay homage and to entertain. 

Complete Symphonies: Integral Sets 
(see overview here)

Colin Davis/Boston SO (Philips 1975-1977) (Decca 478-3696 (2010 re-issue))
Lorin Maazel/Vienna PO (1963-1968) (Decca 430-778-2 (1991) or 478 8451 (2015))
Neeme  Järvi/Gothenburg SO (1984-1986) (BIS CD-622/624 (1994 compilation))
Simon Rattle/City of Birmingham SO (EMI 1984-1987) (Warner 0825646198788 (2015 re-issue))
Osmo Vänskä/Lahti SO (BIS 1286/1288 (2001 compilation))

The Symphonies
(individual performances)

Symphony #1 in e minor Op. 39
Lorin Maazel/Vienna PO (1963) (Decca 430-778-2 (1991) or 478 8451 (2015))
C. Davis/London SO (RCA, 1994) (Sony 88765431352 (2013 compilation)
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD-221 (1984))
Paavo Berglund/Bournemouth SO (EMI, 1974) (Warner 9 73600-2 (2013))

Symphony #2 in D major Op. 43
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD-252 (1984))
Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra (CBS, 1957) (Sony 88875108582 (2015 compilation))
C. Davis/London SO (RCA, 1994) (Sony 88765431352 (2013 compilation)

Symphony #3 in C major Op. 52
Simon Rattle/City of Birmingham SO (EMI, 1985) (Warner 0825646198788 (2015 re-issue))
C. Davis/Boston SO (Philips, 1977) (Decca 478-3696 (2010 re-issue))
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD- 228 (1984))
Leonard Bernstein/New York PO (CBS, 1965) (Sony 88875026142 (2015))

Symphony #4 in a minor Op. 63
C. Davis/Boston SO (Philips 1977) (Decca 478 3696 (2012 compilation)
Maazel/Vienna PO  (1968) (Decca 430-778-2 (1991) or 478 8451 (2015))
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Philharmonia Orchestra (1981) (Decca 473-590-2 (2003))

Symphony #5 in E-flat major Op. 82
Maazel/VPO (1966) (Decca 430-778-2 (1991) or 478 8451 (2015))
Vänskä/Lahti SO (BIS 1286/1288 (2001 compilation))
Bernstein/New York PO (CBS, 1961) (Sony 88875026142 (2015))

Symphony #6 in d minor Op. 104
Berglund/Bournemouth SO (EMI, 1973) Warner 9 73600-2 (2013))
Vänskä/Lahti SO (BIS 1286/1288 (2001 compilation))
Herbert von Karajan/Berlin PO (1968) (DG (Originals) 457 748-2 (n.d.))
C. Davis/Boston SO (Philips, 1977) (Decca 478-3696 (2010 re-issue))

Symphony #7 in C major Op. 105
Ormandy/Philadelphia (CBS, 1960) (Sony 88875108582 (2015 compilation))
Karajan/Berlin PO (1968) (DG (Originals) 457 748-2 (n.d.))
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD-311 (1986))

The Violin Concerto

Concerto for Violin in d minor Op. 47
Jascha Heifetz/Walter Hendl/Chicago SO (1959) (RCA 82876 66372 2 (SACD re-master) (2005))
Pekka Kuusisto/Segerstam/Helsinki PO (Ondine ODE-878-2 (1996))
David Oistrakh/Ormandy/Philadelphia (1959) (Sony (Originals) 88697858162 (2011))
Dylana Jensen/Ormandy/Philadelphia (1980) (Sony 88875108582 (2015 compilation))

Other Works 
(arranged in order of publication)

Kullervo Op. 7
Vänskä/Lahti SO/Helsinki University Chorus  (BIS CD-1215 (2001)

En Saga Op. 9
Okko Kamu/Helsinki RSO (DG, 1973) (DG (Eloquence) 480 3297 (2010 compilation))
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra (RCA, 1975) (Sony 88875108582 (2015 compilation))

Karelia Suite Op. 11
Kamu/Helsinki RSO (DG, 1976) (DG (Eloquence) 480 3297 (2010 compilation)
Segerstam/Helsinki PO (Ondine ODE-878-2 (1996))
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (1996) (DG 00289 477 6654 (2007))
Ormandy/Philadelphia (CBS, 1968) (Sony 88875108582 (2015 compilation))

Sonata for Piano in F major Op. 12
Erik T. Tawaststjerna (Finlandia 0927-41356-2 (2001 compilation))
David Rubinstein (Musicus M1002 (2007 re-issue from MHS (LP) 1218 (1971))

Rakastava (The Lover) Op. 14
(a) chorus with string orchestra
Vänskä/Lahti SO/YL Male Chorus (BIS CD-1433 (2008))
(b) string orchestra
C. Davis/LSO (RCA, 1994) (Sony 88765431352 (2013 compilation))
Neville Marriner/ASMF (Argo, 1978) (Decca 478-2759 (2011 compilation))

Lemminkäinen Suite  (Four Legends from the Kalevala) Op. 22
Kamu/Helsinki RSO (DG, 1976) (DG (Eloquence) 480 3297 (2010 compilation))
Segerstam/ Helsinki PO (Ondine ODE 852-2 (1996)) (see my review here)
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD-

The Swan of Tuonela (from Op. 22)
Ormandy/Philadelphia (CBS, 1960) (Sony 88875108582 (2015 compilation))
C. Davis/Boston SO (Philips, 1976) (Decca 478 3696 (2012 compilation))
Karajan/Berlin PO (1965) (DG (Originals) 457 748-2 (n.d.))

The Maiden in the Tower (1896)
N. Järvi/Häggander/Hynnenin/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD-250 (1984))
P. Järvi/Kringellborn/Magee/Estonian National SO (Virgin 7243 5 45493 2 (2002))

Finlandia Op. 26
Segerstam/Helsinki PO and Men's Chorus (Ondine ODE 1075-2Q (2006))
Ormandy/Philadelphia (CBS,  ) (Sony 88875108582 (2015 compilation))
Bernstein/NYPO (CBS, 1965) (Sony 88875026142 (2015))

King Christian II (incidental suite) Op. 27
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (1996) (DG 00289 477 6654 (2007))

Origin of Fire Op. 32
Vänskä/Lahti SO/YL Male Chorus (BIS CD-1433 (2008))

Pelléas et Melisande (incidental suite) Op. 46
P. Järvi/Estonian National SO (Virgin 7243 5 45493 2 (2002))
Karajan/Berlin PO (DG 410 026-2 (1983))

Pohjola's Daughter Op. 49
John Barbirolli/Halle Orchestra (EMI, 1966) (Warner 50999 9 84706 2 4 (2000))
C. Davis/Boston SO (Philips 1981) (Decca 478 3696 (2012 compilation))

Belshazzar's Feast (incidental suite) Op. 51
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD-359 (1987))
Segerstam/Helsinki PO (Ondine ODE-878-2 (1996))
Vänskä/Lahti SO/Lahti Chamber Choir et al. (BIS CD-735 (1995))

Night Ride and Sunrise Op. 55
N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD-311 (1986))
Segerstam/Helsinki PO (Ondine ODE-914-2 (1998))
Rattle/Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI, 1981) (Warner 0825646198788 (2015 re-issue))

Quartet for Strings in d minor Op. 56 'Voces Intimae'
Sibelius Academy Quartet (Finlandia 4509-95851-2 (1992 compilation))
Emerson Quartet (DG B0006340-02 (2006))

The Bard Op. 64
Kamu/Helsinki RSO (DG, 1973) (DG (Eloquence) 480 3297 (2010 compilation)

Luonnotar Op. 70 (Tone poem for soprano and orchestra)
Mari Anne Häggander/Jorma Panula/Gothenburg SO (BIS CD-270 (1985))
Phyllis Curtin/Bernstein/New York PO (CBS, 1965) (Sony 88875026142 (2015))
Soile Isokoski/N. Järvi/Gothenburg SO (1996) (DG 00289 477 6654 (2007))
Elisabeth Söderström/Ashkenazy/Philharmonia Orchestra (1981) (Decca 473-590-2 (2003))

The Oceanides Op. 73
Eugen Jochum/Bavarian RSO (DG, 1957) (DG (Eloquence) 480 3297 (2010 compilation)
Segerstam/Helsinki PO (Ondine ODE-914-2 (1998))

Jokamies (Everyman) Incidental Suite Op. 83
Vänskä/Lahti SO/Lahti Chamber Choir et al. (BIS CD-735 (1995))

My Own Land Op. 92 (cantata)
Vänskä/Lahti SO/Jubilate Choir (BIS CD-1906-08 (2007))

The Tempest (incidental suites) Op. 109
Marriner/Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields (Hänssler Classics CD 98-353 (2000))
Segerstam/Helsinki PO (Ondine ODE-914-2 (1998))

Tapiola Op. 112
Segerstam/Helsinki PO (Ondine ODE-852-2 (1996))
Colin Davis/Boston SO (Philips, 1977) (Decca 478 3696 (2012 compilation)

Masonic Ritual Music Op. 113 (1946)
Jaako Kuusisto/Lahti SO/YL Male Chorus et al. (BIS CD-1977 (2011))

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Paavo Järvi conducts Bruckner's 6th

RCA (Red Seal) 88751 31262 (2015)
Bruckner: Symphony #6 in A major (Nowak Edition)
Paavo Järvi/Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

This is a very fine performance, thoughtful and well-detailed. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony is more than equal to the demands of the score, with a full, rich, beautiful ensemble sound. RCA's digital sonics are at once warm and grandly sumptuous, aptly capturing the breadth and sweep of the score. Conductor Paavo Järvi leads the Nowak edition of Bruckner's often-overlooked 6th with unimpeachable musicality and steady assurance. Yet, for all its virtues, this reading offers no new insights into the music.

Comparison to some of the great performances of the past is inevitable:  Jochum (DG) emphasized the sheer innate drama of the music, offering a hyper-dynamic reading, shattering in its motive force,
while  Klemperer (EMI) delved the quieter philosophical depths of the score. Though almost at opposite ends of he spectrum in terms of phrasing and tempo, both conductors' brought a kind of inevitability--an undeniable personal presence--to their music-making. Haitink, leading the Concertgebouw, (Philips) emphasized a luminous lyricism, while Barenboim (DG), mustering the full power of the Chicago Symphony's legendary brass section, galvanizes the listener with a relentless sense of forward movement, gloriously elucidating the composer's long lines--especially in the slow second movement (while, alas, inexplicably seeming to "peter out" in the finale). Personally, I do not care for Karajan's rather ponderous reading of the Haase edition (DG). Likewise, I was disappointed by what I found to be Wand's uncharacteristically underwhelming rendition (RCA/Sony).

Placing Järvi in the context of this rich, longstanding legacy of performance, I came away not unsatisfied--though I certainly do not mean to damn with faint praise here. In attitude and sensibility, Järvi comes closest, I think, to Haitink, deemphasizing the raw drama of the score in favor of a more refined--though equally innate--lyricism. It may well be interesting to hear additional entries in this (I presume on-going) cycle.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Sibelius at 150 (Part 1): The Symphonies; 14 Great Integral Sets

December 8, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Sibelius' birth, and record labels great and small from around the world are pulling out all the stops to celebrate. The year to date has already witnessed a number of important re-issues, and the next two months will undoubtedly see a veritable flood of  issues both new and renewed. Among the more intriguing offerings announced so far: (1) The Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle has released an all-new cycle on its own label. (2) Decca has issued an 11-disc box set entitled Sibelius: Great Performances which includes the truly great classic early-50s mono recordings of the symphonies by Anthony Collins. (3) Universal has announced plans to issue a 14-disc collection of recordings from the DG and Decca vaults as The Sibelius Edition, featuring some of the marvelous tone-poem interpretations Okko Kamu recorded for DG in the 1970s with the Helsinki Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as the familiar readings of the later symphonies by Karjan and the Berlin Philharmonic, along with a number of interesting lesser-known works. (4) Meanwhile, Warner Classics has gotten a jump on the festivities with a 7-CD box of Historical Recordings and Rarities, 1928-1948 which includes spruced up re-issues of the 30s-era Sibelius Society recordings (still also available on a series of Naxos discs) and interpretations by Robert Kajanus, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Serge Koussevitzky among others.  (5) I am delighted to see that Decca also plans to re-issue the magnificent mid-60s symphonic cycle by Lorin Maazel with the Vienna Philharmonic, superseding the 1991 issue (see #3 below)  in new, thoroughly up-to-date  remastered sound, with a bonus Blu-Ray disc along with the regular CDs in the box. I hold out hope that BIS will see its way clear to re-issue its massive, magnificent 13-box Sibelius Edition from 2011, a virtual treasure chest featuring interpretations of every note the composer ever set down in many of that label's finest recordings from over the last three decades, several of which approach the definitive.

I hope to hear all these sets by early December, although this may be something of a tall order seeing as how I have to buy whatever I review on CFTBB--it's the only way I've found to maintain editorial independence and stay honest in a world where the major labels push for glowingly positive "service reviews" at every turn, and shut out critics who won't play ball. The present post will be the first of several marking this important jubilee, and I thought it would be appropriate as well as interesting to offer an overview of some of the great Sibelius symphonic cycles on record. The following list, based on my own present collection, is in no way all-inclusive, nor is it intended to be. (Partial cycles and stand-alone performances are not listed.) In a later post I hope to compile a list of my all-time favorite performances of each individual symphony and tone poem plus the violin concerto and a few other works, too.

Sibelius: The Seven Symphonies

Decca (Eloquence) 442 9490 (2-CD set) (2007 re-issue)
Symphonies 1, 2, 3, 4
Decca (Eloquence) 442 9493 (2-CD set) (2007 re-issue)
Symphonies 5, 6, 7; Pohjola's Daughter; Night Ride & Sundrise etc.
Anthony Collins/London Symphony Orchestra

These outstanding recordings were made between 1952 and 1956 in Decca's then state-of-the art mono. This remains one of the great benchmark cycles of the 20th century. Australian Universal's re-issue is eminently apt and thoroughly welcome.

Warner Classics (ex-EMI) 50999 9 84706 2 4 (5-CD box set) (2000 re-issue)
Symphonies 1-7; Tone Poems
John Barbirolli/Hallé Orchestra

Barbirolli's sympathetically idiomatic cycle was recorded between 1966 and 1969, and here sounds better than ever.

London (Decca) 430 778-2 (3-CD set) (1991 re-issue)
Symphonies 1-7
Lorin Maazel/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Maazel captures the stark dignity and tuneful seriousness of this music like few others. Especially impressive is his icy, existentially profound take on the Fourth. This cycle was recorded between 1964 and 1968.

Sony 88875026142 (7-CD box set) (2015 compilation)
Bernstein Sibelius Remastered Edition
Symphonies 1-7; Violin Concerto; Tone Poems etc.
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Typically idiosyncratic, often lacking dynamic subtlety, but never ever boring, Bernstein's populist approach to Sibelius is still well-worth the occasional listen. This cycle was originally recorded for CBS Masterworks between 1961 and 1967, but only released as an integral set in 1968. The remastered sound is superb, and the packaging, which includes extensive, detailed discographical information, is nothing short of magnificent.

Warner Classics 50999 9 73600 2 5 (4-CD set) (2013 re-issue)
Symphonies 1-7; Tone Poems
Paavo Berglund/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Recordings from 1972-1977. Thoroughly inside the idiom, Berglund leads one of the most engaging Sixths ever. A very fine serviceable cycle overall though the sonics are not always the finest.

Decca (ex-Philips) 478 3696 (5-CD box set) (2012 compilation)
Symphonies 1-7; Violin Concerto; Tone Poems
Colin Davis/Boston Symphony Orchestra et al.

Davis' first (and still-unmatched) traversal of the Sibelius symphonies for Philips dates from 1975-77. Seldom has there been a more lucid, purposeful performance of the Fourth, demonstrating such a clear understanding of the spatial aspects of the music or offering such single-minded elucidation of the composer's epic long lines. The same principles are vividly on display in the other symphonies as well. Decca's generous, warm remastering of the original magnificent-sounding Philips recordings is absolutely first rate. The sound is powerful, richly detailed, and clear.

Decca 473-590-2 (5-CD box set) (2003 compilation)
Symphonies 1-7; Violin Concerto; Tone Poems etc.
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Philharmonia Orchestra et al.

Ashkenazy's early digital cycle from 1980-86 is impressively dynamic yet also often profoundly introspective. 2003-remastered sound is greatly improved.

Warner Classics 0825646198788 (4-CD set) (2015 re-issue)
Symphonies 1-7; Oceanides; Night Ride and Sunrise
Simon Rattle/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Perhaps one of the most surprising and consistently engaging complete cycles in the catalog, these recordings date from 1984 to 1987. (Night Ride was recorded in 1981).

BIS CD-622/624 (4-CD set) (1994 integral set)
Symphonies 1-7
BIS CD-221 (1984) (Symphony #1; Finlandia)
BIS CD-252 (1984) (Symphony #2; Romance) Op. 42)
BIS CD-228 (1984) (Symphony #3; King Kristian II Suite)
BIS CD-263 (1985) (Symphony #4; The Oceanides etc.)
BIS CD-222 (1984) (Symphony #5; Karelia Overture)
BIS CD-227 (1984) (Symphony #6; Pelleas et Melisande)
BIS CD-311 (1986) (Symphony #7; Night Ride and Sunrise)
Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Released on seven separate CDs between 1984 and 1986, this was the first of two complete cycles Järvi would record with the excellent Gothenburg players (the second being for DG in the early 2000s (see #14)). In its day, this cycle was a sonic revelation, featuring an all-but-definitive Third as well as one of the great  Seconds on record. (I still recommend acquiring the individual discs as (1) most of the filler material has been excluded from the integral set, and (2) I do not care for multi-disc sets in plastic jewel cases (a sure recipe for damaged discs).

Decca 475 7677 (4-CD set) (2006 compilation)
Symphonies 1-7; Tone Poems
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Recorded between 1991 and 1996, Blomstedt is as tasteful. laid-back and lyrical as Bernstein is garish and over-the-top. A very fine cycle indeed, with excellent sound, and impeccable musicianship throughout. This cycle may not "grab" the listener like Jarvi, Rattle, or Bernstein, but it has many quieter, gentler virtues to be admired.

RCA (Sony Masters Series) 88765431352 (7-CD box set) (2013 compilation)
Symphonies 1-7; Kullervo; Lemminkäinen Suite; Tone Poems
BMG 09026-68183-2 (1996) (Symphonies #s 1 & 4)
BMG 09026-68218-2 (1995) (Symphonies #s 2 & 6)
BMG 09026-61963-2 (1994) (Symphonies #s 3 & 5)
BMG 09026-68312-2 (2-CD set) (1997) (Symphony #7; Kullervo etc.)
Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra

Davis recorded this, his second complete cycle, for RCA between 1994 and 1997. The sound was superb and (as in the case of the very-fine Second) revelatory, though Sony's 2013 remastering seems indifferent at best, and Davis' idiosyncratic tempi and spatial gimmickry in the Fourth definitely do not endear, especially in comparison with his earlier 70s-era readings for Philips (see #6).

(a) BIS 1286/1288 (4-CD set) (2001)
(b) BIS CD-1933/35 (Sibelius Edition Vol. 12) (5-CD box set) (2011)
Symphonies 1-7; Symphony #5 (original version);
fragments and preliminary versions (b only)
Osmo Vänskä/Lahti Symphony Orchestra

The modestly-sized (70-player) Lahti Symphony brings great transparency, textural clarity, and impeccable musicianship to this Sibelius cycle, recorded between 1995 and 1997. I am less-than convinced by some of Vänskä's tempi (the scherzo of the First, for example, seems overblown and breathlessly frenetic). Yet, these are not essentially visceral performances (as Bernstein or early Jarvi), and require some thought (as well as multiple hearings) to fully appreciate. On balance, a very fine set, though hardly as extraordinary or rich in revelations as some have insisted. I highly recommend seeking out the 2011 Sibelius Edition box set, as it includes a fascinating disc of fully orchestrated fragments and alternate (preliminary) versions.

Ondine ODE 1075-2Q (4-CD box set) (2005)
Symphonies 1-7; Violin Concerto; Finlandia (choral version)
Leif Segerstam/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Recorded in 1996 and originally released in 2003, these very-interesting, often-powerful performances have much to offer the serious listener. It would be hard to match these readings for their sheer infectious enthusiasm, and patriotic commitment, although I find Segerstam's Fourth disappointingly indifferent. Coupled with one of the truly great performances of the Violin Concerto--perhaps the best since Heifitz.

Deutsche Gramophone 477 6654 (7-CD box set) (2007 compilation)
Symphonies 1-7; Tone Poems etc.
Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Järvi's second complete cycle was originally issued on super-audio CD in 2005. The tone poems and incidental works were recorded between  1996-2000. These very serviceable readings do seem to lack the energy of Jarvi's 1984-86 BIS cycle, though there are moments of genuine grandeur and delectation--and the sound is the best presently to be had on standard CD. This would probably be the set I'd recommend to novice collectors on a tight budget, not only for its excellent sonics, but for the diverse abundance of music at a very reasonable price.