Finlandia (1899) [8.26]
Karelia Suite (1893) [15.42]
Pohjola's Daughter (1906) [14.13]
Valse Triste (1904) [5.31]
Swan of Tuonela (1893-7) [7.51]
Lemminkainen's Return (1893-7) [14.19]
Symphony No. 1 (1898-9) [41.50]
Symphony No. 4 (1911) [36.17]
Symphony No. 2 (1902) [45.57]
Symphony No. 3 (1903) [32.47]
Symphony No. 5 (1914-19) [33.15]
Pelléas et Mélisande suite (1905) [16.54]
Symphony No. 7 (1924) [21.54]
Scènes Historiques (All' Overtura; Hunt; Scena) (1899-1912) [19.25]
Rakastava (1911) [12.54]
Romance (1903) [5.36]
Symphony No. 6 (1923) [29.54]
This set has been long awaited - much discussed and lauded in the
rec.music.classical.records newsgroup. The LPs of the symphonies were originally
issued individually during the 1960s. They were a fixture of the late 1960s
when Sibelius's standing was still struggling out of the slough of post-mortem
neglect. An EMI boxed set (LPs of course) was available for much of the 1970s
although it was not as comprehensive as the present set.
Begging letters to EMI requesting CD transfer met with seeming indifference.
Isolated reissues occurred as part of other series (Phoenixa for some of
the smaller pieces, Symphony 2 on EMI Eminence) but the whole sequence seemed
destined to remain on increasingly distressed vinyl. Of course the self-helpers
with 'CD-burners' were busy transferring the set from pristine, cleaned LPs
using 'state of the art' turntable arms and sound processing but this remained
a game for the moneyed few. EMI finally relented last year and announcements
of the release of this set were enthusiastically greeted.
Finlandia is mordantly performed: a black wave topped by the
craggy abrasion of the trumpets. The woodwind's harmonium-imitative tones
must be an evocation of Sibelius's prentice works which included that domestic
instrument. The riptide trumpet fanfares are at first so rushed as to wrong-foot
the Hallé players but only the once. The throaty horns are on their
metaphorical hindlegs and the big tune is done with a catch in the throat
and a burst of the highest voltage.
Karelia Suite. The Intermezzo is recorded with a real
sense of depth and stage width. Barbirolli builds and barely contains the
excitement then unleashes it scattering and flying. The steady bandmaster's
beat suggests the tight-collared young Sibelius. The Ballade is a
Russian elegy from the same blood group as Tchaikovsky 5 with the second
subject clearly linked to Kullervo. In the Alla Marcia the
rhythm is sharply rapped out
Pohjola's Daughter. This is another symphony in all but name
and one of voluptuously overflowing invention and enchantment. The strings
shudder smartly. The harp is beautifully captured. The clarinet part is perhaps
not as fluid as it might have been. Dynamic contours are excellently captured
and many details float clear for the first time. The performance is up there
with the Horst Stein recording on Decca. This is apparently much better than
Barbirolli's 1959 recording once available on EMI Phoenixa CDM7 63775-2.
I noted the urgent wailing screams at 8.20 foreshadowing Bernard Herrmann's
bird shrieks in the shower scene from Psycho (1960). This is a very
exciting performance fading out to a perfectly judged sombre niente.
The following Valse Triste is given a languorous Sospiri of
The Swan of Tuonela features some fine string work in this
cor anglais-led soliloquy, off-set by the Lemminkainen's Return. This
is a troika ride (a sort of early Nightride and Sunrise) with its
bellowing brass so close in spirit to symphonies 1 and 2. It remains a mystery
to me why Barbirolli and, for that matter, Berglund, avoided recording
Lemminkainen and the Maiden's of Saari and Lemminkainen in
The First Symphony is given a stunner of a performance. It
is taken at a fair old lick with the icy dazzle of the strings not in the
least compromised. It is all very pliably and lovingly done without being
at all languid. The Valse Triste steadiness of the second movement
is notable - quite slow and with a shiver that chills to the bone. The Scherzo
is tensely chiselled - throbbing sharply. The finale is on reins held
commandingly in a Mravinsky-like grip - a tungsten-tempered hawser stretched
to whip-tight breaking point. This is an electrifying interpretation. Barbirolli
knows so well how to pace the emotion - pressing onwards then holding back
in classic Tchaikovskian technique. An undoubted highlight of the set.
It should come as small surprise that Sibelius often went well in Barbirolli's
hands with his Italian heredity and Mediterranean emotionalism. Italy was
of great significance to Sibelius (and other Scandinavian composers) being
the wellspring for his Second Symphony and for Nightride and Sunrise
(the latter regrettably not recorded by Barbirolli).
The opposite pole to the First is the Fourth. It is dismally
swarthy but mesmerising, relieved by the often loftily pitched strings -
hoarsely abrasive and resonant. Comfort comes in the shape of the oboe song
in the second movement resounding amid the tundra's permafrost. One can imagine
how Barbirolli must have relished the cello solo at the start of the final
movement. The recording was made just two months before the conductor's death.
Were the composer's thoughts about mortality through throat cancer (reflected
in the symphony's overcast mood) also in Barbirolli's mind for this performance?
The Second Symphony is so expansive that some may find it less
than ideal. It is up against (and must ultimately succumb to) competition
from Barbirolli's incandescent berserker-charge of the
RPO recording on Chesky. There are however
many attractive details. There is the satisfying braying crump of the brass
at 6.58 in the first movement. In the second movement at 5.09 the calming
woodwind carillon is wonderfully done and one of the advantages of the
evolutionary approach. The finale is notable at 5.35 for the blow-torch fury
of the violins and the darkly jabbing trombones at 6.38. It is interesting
to note that this performance times out at 45.57 whereas the Chesky runs
to 43.54. Sanderling's Berlin Classics disc suffers similarly (duration 45.34).
In both cases a grand sweep topples over the edge into something close to
The Third's pulse is again slow and in my view this emasculates
the propulsive force of the music. Set against this the wonderful woodwind
pealing out at the top of the big theme at 6.49 (I). The second movement
is thoughtful. The slower pace also pervades the finale with woodwind details
registering strongly, more often and with greater poignancy than in other,
fleeter, hands. That said, Barbirolli does place the structural core of the
symphony under great strain.
Barbirolli's way with the fifth is rather slack and fey. I
missed the tension of Berglund on Royal Classics (the cycle that supplanted
the Barbirolli in the period to 1976) and
Collins on Beulah . Soon however
the rapid water-lapping tempo asserted at 8.50 onwards begins to convince
and to cement impressions. There is a delicious flute flourish at 9.40 in
first movement. The Hallé are in snappily powerful form - a major
orchestra on-song. In the intermezzo middle movement things fail to cohere
and begin to topple and a similar weakness carries over into the finale with
the swing of the tolling theme seeming far too relaxed. Time and again, though,
the recording's depth and subtlety triumphed e.g. in discreet scuttling of
strings at 5.40.
I am afraid that the seventh suffers from the same weakening
pulse. It cannot match Berglund's Bournemouth version let alone the
In the Pelléas suite we are again treated to a very deliberate
pace coupled with an impressive sense of control and concentration. Barbirolli
brings out in the second movement parallels with the film music of Bernard
Herrmann (himself a champion of Sibelius with the CBS Symphony Orchestra)
with one of those cool-as-snow dances over the quiet pulsing of the strings.
The whole suite is quiet and low key.
With the Scènes Historiques we are back to Barbirolli
on top form. The contours are traced and turned with punchy precision fully
the equal of the shorter pieces on the first disc of this set. The Hunt,
bustling and busy, bears some passing resemblance to the flighty music of
Berlioz but the discordant fanfares and the harmonic sharpness of the strings
show a family likeness with the Fourth Symphony. The initially untroubled
Tchaikovskian Scena soon erupts into patriotic derring-do (and even
a hint of bombast) familiar from Finlandia and En Saga.
Rakastava (The Lover) is contemporaneous with the
superficially forbidding Fourth Symphony. For strings and discreet percussion,
this is one of those essays in blanched Nordic atmosphere - a step (or ten)
Northwards from Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. The lambent sheets of
the aurora borealis shift smoothly and kaleidoscopically while the human
drama of love and romance is played out on manicured lawns. This work can
loosely be grouped with Sibelius's 'second violin concerto' the Six
Humoresques for violin and orchestra. The Romance (1903) is akin
to Rakastava although lighter and less memorable.
The Sixth Symphony has none of the spotlit grand heroics of
the Fifth. It is a work of serenity agreeably dominated by the strings and
with melodic material suggestive of the Third Symphony. It is not a work
of extremes: subtle but amply accessible although in a different way from
the out and out romanticism of symphonies 1 and 2. The Barbirolli approach
in this case is classically poised with plenty of passion of the smoothest
hallmark. Listen to the furious attack of the strings at the start of the
final Allegro Molto! I have heard more driven performances but this
time Barbirolli hits what is, for me, the exact right note.
GENERAL AND CONCLUSIONS
This is a cycle for those who love their Sibelius very broad indeed. This
has its own satisfactions often capturing details lost in the fleeter approach.
This cycle will surprise you with the audacity of its tempi and reward you
with 'new discoveries' when you need to freshen your pleasure in Sibelius.
Nice to see the original LP covers reproduced on the inside surfaces of the
case. Nice packaging as well - artfully squeezing 5 discs into a single
double-width jewel case.
The finesse and might of the recorded sound is a lasting testament to the
work of Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker and Ronald Kinloch Anderson.
Documentation is excellent from Michael Kennedy (Sibelius and Barbirolli
- plenty of valuable detail on Barbirolli's life long support for Sibelius)
and Stephen Johnson annotating the Sibelius works.
EMI Classics are warmly to be congratulated in many respects. A measure of
their sensitivity and attention to detail is the generous helping of silence
between the works on each disc.
If Sibelius's symphonies are as much about the alchemy of light as about
the spirits of earth, air, fire and water the speed at which that light travels
is slowed in Barbirolli's hands. The youthful edge of impetuosity is moderated
overall. This does not usually undermine excitement although that element
is certainly shaded somewhat in the Symphonies 2, 3, 5 and 7. Nos 1 and 6
are performances and recordings close to my vision of perfection.
This is a recommendable set although not the only one to have on your shelves.
The strengths (and these are very considerable) are to be found in symphonies
1, 4 and 6 and the shorter orchestral pieces.