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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphonies: 1 in e, op. 39, 2 in D, op. 43, 3 in C, op. 52, 4 in a, op. 63, 5 in E flat, op. 82, 6 in d, op. 104, 7 in C, op. 105, Luonnotar, op. 70*, Pohjolaís Daughter, op. 49
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein, with *Phyllis Curtin (soprano)
Recorded March 3rd 1967 (1), May 15th 1966 (2), October 18th 1965 (3), February 1st 1966 (4), March 27th 1961 (5), May 9th 1967 (6), March 28th 1960 and October 12 1965 (7), May 1st 1964 (op. 70, op. 49), in the Philharmonic Hall of New York (Symphonies) and the Manhattan Center (op. 70, op. 49)
SONY CLASSICAL Columbia Legends SM4K87329 087329003 [4 CDs, 63:18, 65:39, 72:17, 49:40]



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A little over a year ago I reviewed an 8-CD box from EMI which contained all the symphonies and most of the orchestral works of Sibelius under the baton of Paavo Berglund, and I praised the "unhurried, yet never dragging, style of interpretation which seems to find the tempi from within the music and to allow events to unfold with absolute inevitability, never pushing onwards, never holding back". I concluded that "on account of this unfailing contact with the musicís natural, organic growth Ö. Berglundís interpretations are those most in tune with the role Sibelius is coming to play in the 21st Century".

Leonard Bernstein, we know, was a more interventionist type of interpreter, tending to make a personal voyage of discovery out of every single performance. Will his sheer force of personality stand in the way of this austerely objective composer? Well, not so fast, please. It is true that Bernstein is one of those conductors whose work can be recognised blindfold, but this did not stem, at least until his last decade, from any particular eccentricity about the interpretations. Tempi were around the norm and were not subjected to any great manipulation; second subjects went at about the same tempo as the first, nor did he wantonly apply agogic exaggerations or rubatos. If the music sometimes took on a new look, this was to be sought in the fiery articulation and the sheer gut conviction he was able to obtain from every single player. When he plays Sibelius, the mountain ranges may seem more jagged than usual, the storms may rage more fiercely, the lightning flash more violently, the moments of dark brooding may brood even more darkly, yet the landscape is still a truly Sibelian one, arising from the very great empathy Bernstein obviously had for this composer.

It must also be said that Bernstein and the NYPO were, in their heyday, one of those associations that come our way only too rarely. I thought particularly of Koussevitsky/Boston and Mravinsky/Leningrad in the sheer intensity of the playing which, even in studio conditions, is frequently astounding. The players are living dangerously, the wind within a millimetre of overblowing, the strings at times rasping in their attack. On several occasions, in the middle of the finale of no. 2, for instance, logic would declare that Bernstein has already fired all his guns, at only half-way through the movement he has nothing left in reserve for the crowning climax. And yet, as with Koussevitsky and Mravinsky, still more power is found. I hate to say it, but in a direct comparison Berglund and the admirable Helsinki PO, fine as they are on their own terms, sound rather small beer.

When the LPs were originally issued, all this reached us through rather coarse, strident sound which put a lot of people off. The recordings were close-miked and this cannot be changed, but the effect is now of a warm, concert-hall sound, while still very detailed. The conductorís pianissimos are allowed to register.

Symphony no. 1

Symphony no. 1 has the reputation of being "Tchaikovskian", and I must say I have never been able to see this. There was a famous occasion when Sibelius and Mahler met and Sibelius declared that the symphony satisfied him as a form because it was "like the world". Mahler replied that "no symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything". Suppose Tchaikovsky had been present too, what might he have replied? Maybe something on the lines of "the symphony must contain all of myself"? Tchaikovskyís symphonies are essentially personal dramas; Sibelius, even in his first symphony, speaks of the forces of nature, of forces outside himself. His approach is not confrontational; each idea grows out of the previous one. His art concerns logical growth, not drama.

Bernstein seems to me to realise this completely; it is a virile, gripping reading, urgent in the outer movements, without any attempt to sentimentalise the second movement.

Symphony no. 2

If in no. 1 Bernstein was a shade swifter than the norm, here he is slightly slower. However, tempo is not everything. Berglundís first movement has a slightly shorter timing and I must bow before the evidence, but I was quite convinced Bernstein was faster. This is because of the urgency of his articulation, beside which Berglund appears a little lack-lustre. Bernstein also creates a powerfully brooding effect in the slow movement with some colossal climaxes. The scherzo is electrifying, especially at the surprise return after the trio. The finale is notably slow. This is by general consent the one weak movement in the entire canon, and the method of Beecham (especially in the live BBC performance) was to minimise its repetitiveness with a swift tempo. Bernstein takes it at its face value and manages to convince by his sheer belief in what he is doing. What does worry me is his broadening out at the moment of recapitulation, which may prove mannered on repetition.

Symphony no. 3

After writing two symphonies in a large-scale nationalist-romantic vein Sibelius began to seek new directions. The third has a Haydnesque clarity and suggests a move towards neo-classicism. Some conductors seem distrustful of its apparent calmness of spirit and rush it off its feet. This is particularly regrettable in the case of the wistful poetry of the second movement. Bernstein is just fractionally faster than Berglund all through; hearing him immediately after the Finnish performance is uncannily like hearing the same interpretation given a sharper profile. Perhaps I would prefer the second movement a notch slower, but there is no shortage of rapt poetry in its later stages and the outer movements are magnificent; vital and ongoing, but with space to breathe.

Symphony no. 4

A comparison of Bernsteinís timings with those of Beecham and Berglund in this, the most uncompromising and modern of all Sibeliusís symphonies, suggests that it will be a controversial reading:

 

Beecham:

9:50 4:07 9:34 8:44
Berglund: 9:39 4:41 9:55 9:57
Bernstein: 11:09 5:19 11:14 11:22

In fact, such is the gripping intensity of the playing that I felt no inclination to start making comparisons; this is a very fine performance in its own right. Furthermore, Bernstein seems to conduct each movement in one long seamless line, making each new idea grow out of the previous one. Awesome!

Symphony no. 5

Having had little but praise for the first four symphonies, I have to say I find the fifth a little less satisfactory. It was recorded several years before most of the others and I wonder if those years saw the full flowering of Bernsteinís interpretative genius? I am too conscious of the conductorís control here, inhibiting spontaneity. In the first movement Bernsteinís tendency to broaden out at key points runs counter to the gradual accelerando written into the music. Instead of a continual gathering of momentum the music lurches backwards and forwards. The second movement is disfigured by some lachrymose phrasing from the strings towards the end Ė fine in Tchaikovsky but quite out of place in Sibelius. The finale nearly grinds to a halt about half-way through. In the hands of the best interpreters we get the idea that the mountain climb has finished and we are now moving along a high plateau, but we are still moving. Bernstein seems to have stopped to admire the admittedly impressive view.

Needless to say there are also many perceptive touches. Overall, I get the impression that Bernstein is trying to make the symphony as disjointed as possible, maybe in an attempt to convince us that it was not, after all, a retrenchment from the modernity of no. 4. I donít think he really succeeds, but the attempt is worth hearing.

Symphony no. 6

This, together with no. 3, is the most elusive of the symphonies, its radiant calm having tempted many, notably Maazel, to try to beef it up. I thought Bernstein a mite swift in the main body of the first movement, but in fact the classic Beecham has a shorter timing still (Bernstein 8:03, Beecham 7:01). This is a little misleading, since a lot is due to the fact that Bernstein (and also Berglund) treats the opening pages as a sort of poetic meditation while under Beecham they move forward more purposefully; you feel that ideas are germinating which will then break out in the body of the movement (and note that the opening isnít a slow introduction, the tempo is, or should be, the same throughout). The gentle second movement, often compared to an evocation of the Northern lights, is very poetically rendered (it is one second longer than Berglundís!) while the menacing scherzo is suitably trenchant with a precision to the dotted rhythms which makes Berglund sound just a little slack. The finale has a bracing vitality. Here the difference with Berglundís more meditative approach is very marked; 8:57 against 11:12. The music seems to be able to take both extremes but Beecham, at 9:43 really does seem to have the ideal solution.

In short, I donít think Beecham has been surpassed, but Bernstein offers a more bracing alternative which is well worth having.

Symphony no. 7

Iíd dearly like to know how much of this was recorded in 1960 and how much in 1965. The bulk must come from a single performance for it is too well integrated to have been pieced together from two sessions five years apart. Bernsteinís no. 7 is comparable to his no. 4; a little more drawn out than certain rivals (the famous Koussevitsky or a notable performance from Boult on BBC Legends), it has such intensity, such a feeling for the growth of the music that the wish to set others alongside it is banished. This symphony contains numerous changes of tempo, each one a potential pitfall, and Bernsteinís performance is quite seamless.

Luonnotar, Pohjolaís Daughter

The various sides of Sibelius were remarkably compartmentalised. The creator of some of the 20th Centuryís mightiest symphonic utterances sometimes used apparently similar techniques in his symphonic poems but (except in Tapiola) used them to evoke gently the magic legends of Finlandís past. Berglund understands this perfectly and I have to say that Bernsteinís attempt to find symphonic drama and modernity in these two works, however exciting in a superficial way, is just mistaken. In addition, Taru Valjakka makes a far pleasanter sound than Phyllis Curtin, and integrates the words better into the melodic line. I am in no position to judge Curtinís Finnish but the impression is that she is making heavy weather of it.

It is unlikely that any cycle under one conductor will give us the best possible version of each work; here I have serious reservations about only one symphony (and the two shorter pieces). In view of the intensity and conviction which is to be found throughout the set I can only say it offers a magnificent bargain.

The booklet notes by Matthias Henke are in general good, but I feel obliged to take up his comments on the second symphony: "Contemporary critics already complained that it was cobbled together Ďpiecemealí Ė a not altogether unjust impression that may be due, in part, to the opening Allegretto, which breaks with the conventional dualism of contrastively structured subject-groups and presents in its stead a multiplicity of musical ideas." OK up to a point, for this first movement begins with a number of ideas which are presented as separated fragments. But in the course of the movement the rustling strings motifs gradually bring the fragments together until they are presented as one long melodic line at the moment of recapitulation. This was the basis of the theory advanced by Cecil Gray that Sibelius had turned sonata form inside out and the exposition of this movement was in fact at the end (where the recapitulation should be) not at the beginning.

Christopher Howell



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