> Jean Sibelius - The 7 Symphonies [NH]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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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 6328 [5CDs: 40.03+73.14+69.02+53.24+59.02]

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 as £10.

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 front-running Gibson.

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 set.

Neil Horner

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