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- The Seven Symphonies …. From Utah

Symphony No. 1 [36.44]

Symphony No. 4 [34.32]

CD1 SVC 31 71.28
Symphony No. 2 [43.00]

Symphony No. 3 [29.24]

CD2 SVC 32 72.34
Symphony No. 5 [29.16]

Symphony No. 6 [28.09]

Symphony No. 7 [21.14]

CD3 SVC 33 78.58

Utah SO/Maurice Abravanel
analogue stereo recordings rec May 1977, Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah VANGUARD CLASSICS SVC 3133 (boxed set - also available separately)
CD1 [71.28] CD2 [72.34] CD3 [78.58]

European listeners may well have been curious about this Sibelius Seven. Rather like the Berlin Classics set conducted by Sanderling it has had little column space in the review magazines. This treatment is unworthy.

Abravanel (1903-1993) was conductor of the Utah SO from 1947 to 1979. In that time he took it from state status to national and international recognition. His work with Vanguard took the name of the orchestra across the world. There is a Mahler cycle (SVC2030 - hardly ever mentioned), a sequence of Brahms symphonies (SVC 1719) and the present cycle - all among so much else. Personal favourites from his many recordings include the Leroy Robertson Violin Concerto (a wonderfully romantic work - think of it as the violin concerto Howard Hanson never got round to writing!) and the Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony and Dona Nobis Pacem.

Alert, brisk, spirited, pointed and sensitive. These epithets best describe Abravanel's cycle in most respects though these qualities are not to be found consistently deployed across the whole cycle. Perhaps the pace slackens a tad (a calculated relaxation) towards the end of the finale of No. 6 but Abravanel promptly gathers himself.

While numbers 1, 4 and 6 of the recently reissued EMI Barbirolli cycle are strong (in the case of no. 1 amongst the best ever - the same cannot be said of Barbirolli's numbers 2, 3, 5 and 7 undermined by a lassitude which I put down to Barbirolli's state of health at the time) the Abravanel cycle is a more consistent achievement. Certainly there is nothing somnifacient or leaden about this brand of Sibelius. Collins' mono cycle in good Decca sound is very good interpretatively and is well worth your attention. In stereo I lean towards the Berglund cycle (Bournemouth SO on Royal Classics) and the Boston SO/Colin Davis is also excellent.

The Second Symphony is a concert warhorse. Rather like No. 1 it may occasionally be as far as some listeners may go in exploring the Sibelius symphonies as it links most perfectly with mature Tchaikovsky from which many exploring souls will have come. Abravanel is quite broad and this compromises, to a degree, what would otherwise be a very decently emoted performance.

The First Symphony is good with a rock-steady beat in evidence in the second movement alongside some glorious woodwind and a beautifully calculated passage for solo cello. The rapid beat of the third movement is well carried off - listen to the harps deep in the bass of the third movement at 0.40. Abravanel is all inky nocturnal melodrama in the finale.

Abravanel and the Utah players undoubtedly hit just the right note in Numbers 3 (prone to hymnlike pacing in the last movement), 5 and 6. He is wakeful, open to the sudden sway and lilt of the music and applies pointful accenting. All these are strong performances.

Abravanel's No. 7 is quite broad (sometimes drowsy and morose) and does not carry off the effect. As expected though, the woodwind detailing is superb (13.30). This must nevertheless be regarded as one of the less strong points of the cycle.

The enigmatic fourth is emphatic on mystery but, in the first three movements, over-eggs the opiate of contemplation. In the finale vigour is reasserted although at some moments this is still not as driven as it might be.

There may be a tendency by some to write off the Utah orchestra as a backwoods ensemble. This is a major error. They are nothing of the sort. The strings are secure of intonation though I did feel that more amplitude and impact from them would have improved the end-result. In No. 3 there could have been more edge on the horn skirls - they lack the necessary asperity. Time and again though the characters in the woodwind section added many iridescent dimensions.

The technical aspects were handled by a famous team: Marc Aubert and Joanna Nickrenz. The wind instruments are lent special weight (without Phase 4 type spotlighting) and this is particularly so in the case of the woodwind. As Sibelius's woodwind writing is always engaging this makes listening to the Abravanel cycle a very pleasing experience. There are a thousand delightful touches (take one example: the horn skirl at 3.36 in last movement of No. 6). All that said, a quick comparison of the EMI Barbirolli forcefully reminded me of the superiority of the EMI sound. This factor, however, by no means effaces what are essentially musical values.

Intelligent notes (English only - how long before US sourced discs begin to feature Spanish language notes given the increasing proportion of Hispanics in that country?) are provided by Nicolas Slonimsky. Well worth reading. Obviously much of the biographical background is repeated across each of the three sets of notes.

The card cover repeats the front-leaflet illustration - a photo of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki. The same photograph once decorated the giant EMI LP set of all Berglund's Bournemouth Sibelius. This was comprehensive indeed featuring what is still the best Kullervo and Luonnotar (Taru Valjakka superb of course!). Abravanel and his Utah forces would have made a creditable to great Kullervo if only they had been adventurous enough. Imagine that: Kullervo with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Why not!

Of all the sets this is among the most economical. It provides only the symphonies while Collins (Beulah), Sanderling (Berlin Classics), Berglund (Royal Classics) and Barbirolli (EMI) offer fillers on additional discs. To this extent the Naxos (Adrian Leaper) seven is comparable (I have not heard the discs) as is the generally feted and ongoing cycle from Petri Sakari and the Iceland SO (presumably to replace the Leaper as the Sibelius standard on Naxos).

A bargain price box from Vanguard which will usually please seasoned Sibelians and delight newcomers.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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