Any representative classical collection, however limited, is
lacking something without at least one set of Sibelius symphonies. My
personal preference, and a long-standing one at that, is for the Alexander
Gibson/RSNO (originally SNO) one on Chandos. This current set also approaches
the tone poems, albeit selectively, and Gibsonís excellent double set
on the same label also rules my particular roost. Despite learning a lot
about Sibelius' music, originally from the interpretations of Beecham,
Barbirolli and Karajan, this music demands, to my mind, a conductor (and
orchestra) that is not larger (in any sense of the term) than the incredibly
potent source material. Sakari's Naxos cycle is a case in point: idiomatic
and solid as a rock (granite presumably!). The Sanderling set offered
here can be similarly endorsed. More recent/ongoing cycles offered at
full price (e.g. Vänskä on BIS, Frank on Ondine) may set the
present technical and artistic standard but I have deliberately ignored
these to concentrate on recordings of generally older provenance, which
can be obtained at mid-price or lower, to offer a fair comparison for
a product that is being offered by some mail order companies for as little
Before looking at each recording, individually, it
is worth mentioning some of the overall qualities of Sanderling's cycle.
One instantly recognises the difference between the lean, pared down
approach and the luxurious, some would say lush, soundworld offered
on contemporaneous recordings from the other side of the then divided
Berlin, i.e. those by the BPO/Karajan. While Sibelius's genius is certainly
great enough to withstand many alternative interpretations, Sanderling's
non-grandiose treatment definitely highlights the historical debts owed
to this composer from some unlikely quarters. A good example of this
is Minimalism - the emphasis on clarity, rhythm and energy/momentum
(despite relatively sedate tempi) clearly demonstrates a link that some
minimalist composers have been celebrating for some time. For anyone
who finds this difficult to comprehend, I refer you to the booklet notes
for John Adams's recent Nonesuch recording of his own Harmonium.
There he is quoted as being indebted to "music of sustained resonance"
as written by Sibelius (and Beethoven!). Ingram Marshall was inspired
by an old photo of the Finn to write Sibelius in his Radio Corner,
an aural collage woven around excerpts from the sixth symphony and taking
the so-called "silence of Järvenpää", the long period
between Tapiola and his death during which Sibelius wrote virtually
nothing, as its subject matter.
The other main impression that one is left with by
Sanderling's cycle is the emphasis on Sibelius as a classicist,
at least from the third symphony onwards. Despite the great originality
of many aspects of his music, it is useful to be reminded that many
of his musical fingerprints were not spontaneous in origin. Even the
high, rustling, nature-imitating strings and woodwind can definitely
be traced back to Berwald's marvellous third symphony (Singulière).
The first symphony is taken at a slightly slower pace
than Sakari on Naxos and quite a lot slower than Saraste's live recording
on Finlandia/Ultima. Incidentally, Saraste's cycle has had some bad
press and I would go as far to say that it isn't really recommendable
as a library choice but can make for some exciting, if inconsistent
listening. One of the discs contains the best available recording (studio)
of the magnificent early choral symphony Kullervo and is an essential
purchase for that alone. Obviously, Sakari is digitally recorded and
turns in a sound performance but it is worth pointing out that Sanderling's
set can be had even for half the price of the superbargain Naxos one
and most of his performances, if not the analogue sourced recordings,
are as good.
In the popular second, Gibson gives as good a performance
as any. Sanderling is again considerably slower (two minutes in the
powerful finale) but enjoyable nonetheless, catching the epic sweep
of Sibelius sunniest symphony pretty effectively.
There are some marvellous versions of the third available,
and my loyalties here are divided between Rattle/CBSO (EMI) and Gibson
again. Here, Sanderling adopts a more urgent approach, similar to Gibson
and actually faster than Rattle or Sakari. His is an interesting listen,
particularly with the chamber like sound described above. It certainly
helps Sanderling to make overt the neo-classical feel to the piece,
although the gently melancholic, prayer-like middle movement can benefit
from being given more space.
I am not convinced that the foreboding nature of the
fourth is quite as absolute as it is sometimes portrayed but it is one
in which I feel that a more opulent sound can actually be justified,
perhaps to emphasise the brooding power of the savage nature that inspired
it. In this case I have to plump for Rattle again, rather than Sanderling.
It isn't just the difference in recorded sound, Rattle again is more
expansive in the slow third movement (Il tempo largo) which helps
to develop a greater sense of mystery.
I am in two minds about the fifth. Again Gibson's performance
is a very good one and the sound suits this symphony better than that
on the Sanderling disc but the slower tempi of the latter do enhance
the aspect of grandeur.
The sixth has long been a personal favourite, since
first hearing it in my early teens, and I have never had cause to complain
about Gibson's interpretation. It is one of the most "neo-classical"
of the symphonies and I would endorse the view that its "quietism",
as Robert Layton describes it, has "no parallel". Sanderling takes a
broader view of the first two movements (as does Sakari) than Gibson
but restores some sort of parity to the last two. Sanderling's interpretation
is one of his best and it is good to have a decent comparison for the
The seventh, by contrast, I have always thought of
as one of the composer's grander conceptions, linked most to the fifth,
albeit condensed into a very compact single movement. Here, I remain
to be convinced that Sanderling's sound is quite substantial enough
to convey the true depth of the music and the slowish speed does not
favour him either.
I was fairly ambivalent about the tone poem disc. How
many more Finlandias or Valses Tristes do we actually
need? I was similarly unsure about the reasons for including Paavo Berglund's
Swan of Tuonela with a different orchestra to boot. However,
in En Saga, Sanderling seems to find the spirit of the music
very well. The almost Mussorgskian darkness of this early masterpiece
is given strong emphasis in a performance that ends the set on a high
note. Even this though, it has to be said, does not displace Gibson.
So, in conclusion, not a first choice set (who would
necessarily expect it to be at this price?) but well worth looking at
as an alternative interpretation. The discs are housed in jewel cases
inside a card box (preferable to my mind to Brilliant Classics slimline
packaging of the recent Beethoven box - at least this one allows for
some useful, if hardly exhaustive, notes to be included.) The individual
disc booklets are adorned with some highly appropriate but uncredited
images by Sibelius intimate, the painter Akseli Gallen-Kalela, who like
the composer drew heavily on the epic Kalevala for inspiration.
Robert Layton has written that "He (Sibelius) captures the soul of the
North as no composer before him had done; and his achievement as a symphonist
is unique". This set, like any other of a decent standard, will have
you echoing those sentiments entirely. It should appeal to the completist
and the uninitiated alike and, whichever way you look at it, is most
definitely a bargain. While it doesn't displace Gibson or Rattle, it
is by no means inconsequential and anyone more concerned with performance
than perfect and/or digital sound is likely be well pleased with this