> Sibelius Symphonies and tone poems Brilliant [RB]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Seven Symphonies and a selection of the tone poems

DISC 1 [40.03]
Symphony No. 1 (rec Jan 1976) [39.31]
DISC 2 [73.14]
Symphony No. 2 (rec Sept 1974) [45.34]
Symphony No. 3 (rec Nov 1970) [27.27]
DISC 3 [69.02]
Symphony No. 4 (rec May 1977) [36.14]
Symphony No. 5 (rec Dec 1971) [32.38]
DISC 4 [53.24]
Symphony No. 6 (rec Jan/Feb 1974) [29.35]
Symphony No. 7 (rec Jan/Feb 1974) [23.49]
DISC 5
Finlandia (rec Dec 1971) [8.16]
Valse Triste [5.32]
Night Ride and Sunrise (rec May/June 1977) [16.08]
The Swan of Tuonela [9.02] *
En Saga (rec Nov 1970) [19.54]
Berlin SO/Kurt Sanderling
Berlin Radio SO/Paavo Berglund (rec 1983)
all Sanderling recordings made in the Christuskirche, Berlin recorded 1970-77
ADD stereo recordings digitally remastered.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 6899 [5CDs: 40.03+73.14+69.02+53.24+59.02]
superbudget Brilliant Classics


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Brilliant Classics are building a bargain basement boxed set catalogue at a very rapid rate. Their Bach and Mozart series have, in general, been strongly welcomed ... where they have received any attention at all. The traditional major classical review magazines still tend to walk pharisaically on the other side of the street where Brilliant and Royal are concerned yet the bargain boxed set has attained ikonic status with purchasers for its convenience, its economy and its inclusiveness. The other thing about these sets is that they can be seen in outlets such as supermarkets, cross-channel ferry shops and even office supply warehouses evangelising a public beyond the predictable range of classical collectors.

The first (small) point is that this is not entirely Sanderling and the BSO. For some reason Brilliant have chopped, changed and reallocated what was originally a four CD set into five. When Berlin Classics (BC) issued 0020592BC in 1996 the set contained the seven symphonies plus Night Ride, Finlandia and En Saga. Perhaps the licence from EDEL (who own the BC label) prevented a straight facsimile. What has emerged under Brilliant colours is a 5CD set with CDs 2 and 3 exactly as the counterpart CDs on the Edel set. CD1 has the First Symphony alone, CD4 has just symphonies 6 and 7 and CD 5 has the tone poems with the addition of Valse Triste and an orphan Swan in the shape of a post-Bournemouth Berlin Radio recording by Berglund. It would have been more logical to keep the original couplings and to add the Valse Triste to CD 3 bringing it to 74.34. However that is a trivial point and in its place there is the convenience of having all the Sanderling tone poems in the set grouped on one disc.

The five discs, each with its own colour illustration, are housed in a light card slipcase. The case is of a similar quality to that of the Berlin Classics set. The BC set sported a photograph of a lake-dotted pine tree landscape and this was used as a standard on each disc and on the slipcase.

As I remarked a couple of years back when reviewing the BC set, the Sanderling Seven seem to have had little or no coverage in record review magazines. I recall seeing a passing (and, I think, approving) reference to the set in a Gramophone overview of Sibelius cycles. Perhaps this goes, in Sanderling’s case, with the recordings having been a product of East Germany in the days before Unification.

Sanderling’s Nordic credentials are clear enough. Born in 1912 and trained in Berlin, he emigrated to Russia in 1936. There he conducted the Moscow Radio Orchestra and then the Kharkov Phil. In 1942 he was appointed joint permanent conductor of the Leningrad PO with Mravinsky. Sanderling left Leningrad in 1960 (having recorded Sibelius 2 and 5 with the Philharmonic for Melodiya) for a long association with the Berlin SO. This only ended in 1977. He also worked with the Dresden Staatskapelle. His Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius are legendary. Berlin Classics have many of his recordings in their catalogue and have just issued a 16CD boxed set: 'Kurt Sanderling: Legendary recordings' 0002342CCC.

The First Symphony resounds with mordant string surges, Nutcracker-like enchantment, some stunning brass playing and a sense of the easily unrolling metronomic chiff-chaff of the strings and woodwind (e.g. 10.50 I). The pizzicati are punched out with satisfying impact at the end of the first movement. The hushed fast waves of sound underpinning the horns are done to perfection in the second movement (3.30). In the third movement Sanderling demonstrates that he knows how to knot and twist the tension (1.36). The finale is rather too clipped and petulantly light-weight to be completely successful; more’s the pity as this is a performance that otherwise compares well with the ‘market-leaders’.

Sanderling’s Sibelius cycle is distinguished by attention to detail. The Second Symphony feels lovingly moulded and crafted with tangible control of the pizzicato (I 2.21) and finely-lathed tension in the second movement. There is a slight and very welcome hint of vintage Russian vibrato in the French horns - a ripeness that suits very well in this repertoire. In the finale the vaunting trumpets have a very human self-questioning edge. These fine features carry over into the final pages but are undermined by a sense of fatigue.

The Third Symphony (1904-07) makes the transition from the Tchaikovskian romance of the first two symphonies. A chill flame lights up the third and the sixth symphonies (still my favourites among the cycle); a cold flame but still a flame. Sanderling is warmly in sympathy with these works catching the long march and trudge of the first movement of No. 3 (Leningrad’s snow still on Sanderling’s boots?) with a sharply accented and chiselled approach.

The Fourth Symphony is projected with throatily clipped style. The recording is natural - decidedly unglamorous and very powerful. The work is taken rather steadily but this seems to suit the piece. This is an estimable recording which will consistently please. Many corners and crests emerge with satisfying eminence and clarity. The finale is very good indeed with the studied faltering of the cello and violin statements striding out. There is also, about the work, a gruff volcanic romance quite unlike the Karajan DG performance through which I grew to know this symphony. Sanderling and his orchestra are excellent at these rock-steady ostinati and this foundation pays off time and again.

The Fifth Symphony is, for Sanderling, typically natural in approach and sound. ‘New’ details float out and upwards all the time, for example the bassoon solo in I at 7.09. This is very special indeed. Sanderling is in touch with the hymn-like aspects of the second movement and the wintry serenade work of the woodwind is allowed to register clearly. The strings seem to emphasise the affinity of the writing with Tchaikovsky’s String Serenade. Tension darts, hums, bubbles and streams (try 4.34 if you would like to sample the ethereal and the tense hand-in-hand) through the finale. The epic horn cradle-song, so well articulated, makes this an extremely satisfying performance.

The Sixth Symphony has a coolly unfolding flute contribution and cocooned strings (I), the motoric propulsion of the music utterly dispels the languor that rather saps the energy at the end of the First Symphony. In the finale Sanderling and Sibelius conjure great reserves of detail and at the same time catch the spirit of remote village churches and crudely fervent hymn-singing. The second movement, more than ever in this recording, seems to have much in common with the theatre music.

The Seventh Symphony is the least successful of the set. In it Sanderling’s propensity for caressing detail robs the music of its essential tension. All in all, and in total contrast to his Leningrad partner (Mravinsky) in this work, there is little sense of steely control or of sufficient incitement to trombone oratory - a quality the importance of which has recently been further emphasised for me by hearing the bardic emphasis given to that instrument in two Melodiya LP recordings directed by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky in the 1950s and the 1970s.

The stereo competition is fierce. The Naxos Petri Sakari (DDD) White Box set looks to be very promising and I have a very high regard for Berglund’s Royal Classics set with the Bournemouth SO (ADD). The latter happens to be from the same vintage as the Sanderling. In fairness the Berlin Classics set would not have been my very first choice but I would feel privileged to have learnt and enjoyed the symphonies through them. If you can tolerate mono then the Beulah Collins set is well worth your attention if you can find one now that Beulah has closed down. The recommendable stereo choice is quite wide. The Naxos set from Petri Sakari, Berglund (the Bournemouth years) on Royal Classics, Berglund (DDD - Helsinki plus the rosetted Bournemouth Kullervo) again on EMI and the Vänskä/Lahti SO set on BIS (DDD). All are worthwhile though none are consistently wonderful. The Berglund sets are good and very inexpensive choices and I am torn between recommending the eight CD box formed around the Helsinki orchestra digital sessions of the 1980s and the Bournemouth volume from Royal Classics.

Sanderling glories in detail. He can tend towards a steadiness that occasionally decays the pulse and thrust of the music. Often however his unglamorous approach brings out details that others gloss over or elide. He is not afraid to allow these Northern flowers and trees to bloom at a natural pace. He is no stranger to drama but will not force it unnaturally. Tension is revealed rather than imposed. This set is in many ways a most agreeable addition to the library. Conductor, orchestra and recording all lend themselves to longer-term listening rather than immediate emotional returns and short-term neon high-drama.

We turn now to disc 5. Finlandia is brash and despite savagely barking brass and magnificent horns (3.35) it is not a patch on the arterial throb and the dark hues of the Barbirolli version with the Hallé on EMI or for that matter on Horst Stein's 1970s Decca version with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. I have revised my views over the last two years; I thought very highly of this Finlandia when first hearing it in 1998. The BSO Valse Triste is new to me, being an absentee from the Berlin Classics box and Sanderling manages this very well indeed - lilting and regretful - just as it should be. Nightride shows what a coach of orchestras Sanderling was with pin-point precision and accurate ensemble. Rhythm and dynamics are just so. The Berglund Swan is recorded in intimidating proximity and the recording cannot handle the intense waves of string sound. The distortion is noticeable as is some tape-ruckle damage at 2.11. En Saga’s finely etched wavelets at the start are done with steely precision and it roars and clamours (with some slight over-saturation) just as well as it whispers and shimmers. It is a pity that the ambience is clipped too close to the end of the piece. The fall into digital silence is too precipitate; a few seconds of analogue hiss would have helped sustain the glimmering magic. A Sanderling Pohjola's Daughter would have been worth having as would an Oceanides and Lemminkainen Legends but these were never made (or were they?). The mesmeric string ostinati superbly look forward to Night Ride and Sunrise. Sanderling’s account of the latter is successful: buzzing with blade-sharp definition and with an impressive depth of recording. Sanderling stands here as the conjurer of clouds and enchanter of winds.

I have made spot comparisons between the Berlin Classics and Brilliant sets. In audio terms there is nothing to choose between them. Both evince magnetic tape origins heard in the bed of light hiss apparent and these recordings benefit from being played at high volume. Berlin Classics now use NoNoise technology but the Sibelius set predates the adoption of this technique. It looks as if Brilliant have taken from EDEL exact digital copies with no further attempt to tinker. Well and good. The Brilliant liner-notes are a straight copy of the Berlin Classics originals by Bernhart Lenort (4/5 and 6/7) and Christiane Krautscheid (1, 2/3 and the tone poems). Even the write-up on Sanderling is exactly as the Berlin Classics edition up to date only as far as 1988. The only difference is that Brilliant's notes are in English only. The more detailed discographical information on the BC set has not been transferred onto the Brilliant Classics set.

Thanks are due to Brilliant for giving these recordings (now a quarter century old) a new lease of life and for preserving the liner notes from the original issue.
Rob Barnett

 


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