Partnering the VPO, Maazel and Sibelius was hardly
an obvious marriage made in heaven. That it worked so well is down to
the judgement of Decca producer, Erik Smith. Things started well with
the earliest sessions in 1963 and 1964 delivering up good versions of
the first two symphonies - the Second being very strong indeed. The
analogue tape hiss level is more prominent in those two works than in
the works recorded in the later 1966 and 1968 sessions.
The Maazel Fifth has raised a few critical eyebrows
over its speed and the implication of rush and insensitivity. Certainly
it goes along at a pretty rapid clip finishing in just over 27 minutes.
Personally I find it irresistible most of the time. It has all the virtues
of the rest of the cycle: staggering precision of ensemble, audio excellence
(allowing for a little vestigial hiss), romantic Scandinavian spirit,
attention to dynamic contrast, heart and haughtiness and heroic brass
contributions. Only at the bell-swung climax at 5.45 in III does the
tension dissipate into something close to fatigue.
The Sixth and the Third are personal favourites.
Collins (Beulah - deleted but still findable) is excellent in the Sixth
though for me the EMI Karajan stereo version (in a recentish, 2001,
twofer) is the lead version. Maazel's Sixth is yet another fine interpretation
aided by the moonlight-haloed string sound, life-like timpani, taut
motoric playing, lissom woodwind solos captured in questing inward-leaning
sound and exultant climaxes. Time after time in this cycle you have
a sense of the microphone somehow leaning in towards some little detailing
which elsewhere has gone for nothing and which here is lovingly brought
I heard the Maazel Seventh within twelve hours
of encountering the version recorded by Ormandy and the Philadelphians
for CBS (now Sony). It is launched almost casually with hardly any tension.
This is built over the conjured phantasm of an epic scale. To give this
impression is in itself a tribute to Maazel's sense of architecture,
impact and pacing. The trombone and its deep brass choir bark, burr,
blast, grumble, orate, protest and exult in memorably coloured and immediate
style. Maazel's approach allows the tension to slacken far more than
Ormandy on Sony or Mravinsky on BMG. It is a good version which some
have bracketed with Koussevitsky's venerated BBCSO recording but for
this listener it is not in the top flight.