Sibelius's symphonic alpha and omega are separated
by only a quarter of a century. What a journey! From the First Symphony,
rooted in Balakirev and Kalinnikov as much as Tchaikovsky, to the same
grandeur in the economical and succinct Seventh Symphony.
The original CBS recording sounds good, more so in
the relishable portrayal of detail after detail, without quite evading
the raw glare typical of CBS’s 1960s. Analogue hiss only obtrudes in
the whispered opening measures of the Seventh. Harps and woodwind solos
are given an engineer's helping hand … and very welcome too. The recording
is apt to Bernstein's impassioned way with the First Symphony. Listen
to the petulance - almost vituperation - at 4.30 in the first movement
of the First and again at 10.30 in the Seventh. He injects a snappy
edginess to the scherzo. In a world thronged with weaker Sevenths Bernstein's
can be counted among the strong. A notch down from Mravinsky (BMG-Melodiya,
1965) and Ormandy (also Sony) his sturdily compulsively organic interpretation
reflects the grandeur with which Sibelius invested this outstanding
score. Bernstein’s readings represent healthy, risk-taking Sibelius
with the safety protocols disengaged. In the First Symphony he cannot
stand up to the superb competition of Barbirolli’s EMI version (only
in a boxed set, I am afraid), Stokowski’s 1976 account (Sony nla) or
Maazel’s Decca VPO recording. The issue has nothing to do with exegesis;
the issue is sound quality.
This CD has been in the Sony catalogue since 1993;
clearly a survivor. It is a component of the 'Bernstein Century' series.
Let us hope that if ever it is deleted its disappearance will be the
harbinger for the release of the complete cycle. Such a pity that instead
of indulging DG with various re-recordings in his last years Bernstein
did not return to these symphonies. They suited his temperament so well.