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.

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