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.