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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Complete Symphonies and the Violin Concerto
Symphony No. 1 (1899) [40.16]
Symphony No. 2 (1902) [46.35]
Symphony No. 3 (1907) [27.33]
Symphony No. 4 (1911) [39.43]
Symphony No. 5 (1919) [31.29]
Symphony No. 6 (1923) [27.21]
Symphony No. 7 (1924) [25.53]
Violin Concerto [34.03]
Serenade [8.25]
Karelia Suite [21.32]
Valse Triste [4.23]
En Saga [17.08]
Finlandia [8.59]
Julian Rachlin (violin)
Pittsburgh SO/Lorin Maazel
rec. Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, PA, USA: 16 Sept 1992 (7), 2 May 1992 (1), 16-17 Sept 1990 (2), 3-4 May 1992 (6), 21, 26-27 Sept 1992 (3), 2-4 May 1992 (Valse, Swan), 16 Sept 1991, 2-4 May 1992 (Karelia), 16 Sept 1991 (Finlandia), 7 May 1990 (4), 15-16 Sept 1990 (5), 26-27 Sept 1992 (Concerto, Serenade, En Saga) DDD
SONY CLASSICS SB5K 87882 [5CDs: 66.22+74.31+70.05+71.34+59.49]
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Maazel’s Sony collaboration was made in Pittsburgh over three years from 1990 to 1992. By then thirty years had passed since the perennially well-selling cycle he made with, of all people, the Vienna Philharmonic.

Warmth, retrospect and nostalgia pervade these readings. The subtly softened recording is consonant with that emphasis.

Right from the start of the First Symphony, with its rounded wind legato, the leisurely accent emerges. This is utterly charming if you are in the mood but many will prefer a more Technicolor approach and greater angularity - the sort of thing we find in Maazel's VPO series (Decca and Eloquence), Collins (Beulah now deleted but probably still findable) and in Barbirolli's EMI Classics version of the First (this really should be liberated from the boxed set) or the same conductor's Second Symphony (essential Sibelius on Chesky - not the EMI version).

The recording is pleasingly detailed in perspective and in catching passing detail. It does however give the impression of soft focus which is apt enough when finding Sibelius in mysterious mood but tends to moderate the drama I hunger for especially in the First Symphony. Stokowski's National PO recording, Barbirolli's or Collins' are more successful.

In the Seventh Symphony Maazel stands at the far pole from the forbidding reference version of Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad PO (Olympia or BMG-Melodiya). While the 1965 Moscow live concert was primitively recorded by comparison with the resplendently rounded Sony sound, Maazel fritters away much of the tension. This is not a recommendable version.

The Second Symphony suffers also from loose reins though I did enjoy the definition of the woodwind in the first section of the first movement. The brass barks in the third movement come across very well. It lacks however the incandescence of the 1950s Beecham performance in the RFH (with Beecham yawping his exhortations to the orchestra like a corpulent magus) or Ormandy on Sony or Hannikainen on EMI. I have already mentioned the superb Barbirolli on Chesky. The last movement of the Second seems to find Maazel in much more alert form but by then it is too late.

The Fourth's gutturals are huskily rendered and although there is languor Maazel capitalises on opportunities for dramatic statements. The instrumental solos including the dialogue between the viola and cello principals in the finale are beautiful. The Fifth Symphony is also good and at 2.29 a shuddering string figure emerges with a clarity I have never previously heard - wondrous stuff. Here again I felt wooed by the detail rather than being won over by the grand sweep of the piece.

Maazel hits unequivocally superb form in the Sixth Symphony which I enjoyed greatly. Luminous string sound (OK not as luxuriant as Philadelphia but certainly starry and nicely etched). The elusive 'Midnight Sun' mood engages Maazel - that much is very clear. A lovely recording. Similarly strong is the Third Symphony which is taut and finds the Pittsburgh orchestra in cracking form responding with gleeful alacrity to Maazel and relishing the cooling woodwind writing without becoming soporific.   

En Saga is also extremely well done with some instrumental strokes driven urgently in a very acceptable way. It stands a degree down from Horst Stein (Decca) though the Stein derives some of its unshaken grip from microphone placement and balance that spots and zooms in the aural equivalent of cherry-picking. Even so this is another extremely good version as is the Karelia music. Each little string rictus in the rocking closure of the piece from 15.12 onwards testifies to the recreative qualities Maazel found during these sessions. All the same I rather lament that a more imaginative selection of tone poems was not made. Pohjola's Daughter, The Oceanides, The Bard and Nightride and Sunrise would have been welcome here if only the 'Steel Town' sessions had included these works. The Swan and Finlandia are middle of the road though again sensitively well recorded and in the case of Finlandia showing an openness to gaunt drama - though nothing like as dark as Barbirolli on EMI or Stein on Decca.

Julian Rachlin has a rapturously wide tonal armoury. From the very opening of the Concerto he demonstrates an imaginative reach; his sound being slender yet nectar-sweet. What is more, Maazel and the Pittsburghers catch the same kindling spirit. There is an alacrity and engagement about their playing that is not always present in the symphonies. Rachlin deserves consideration alongside Spivakovsky (Everest), Oistrakh (BMG-Melodiya) and Mullova (Philips). This is no also-ran and neither is the gentle second serenade. I only lament that Rachlin did not complete the picture with the other serenade and the Six Humoresques (if you don't know these pieces you must hear them - try Rosand on Vox).

There are no background notes only detailed listings; not surprising given the bargain price. The box is flimsy and the print used is rather small.

Maazel souses these readings in a challenging luxuriance of detail. I missed the implacable surge and urgency to be found in other readings although at the level of incident and character, long-practised Sibelians will find much to unsettle and stimulate especially in strong versions of symphonies 3, 4, 5 and 6 and in a knockout performance of the concerto. Not commendable as a standard set (for that try Sakari or more reliably Vänskä on Bis) and weak in symphonies 1, 2 and 7. However at bargain price this will reward the dedicated listener.

Rob Barnett

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