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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Symphonies conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Symphony No. 1 (1899) [36.22]

Symphony No. 2 (1902) [44.23]

Symphony No. 3 (1907) [26.18]

Symphony No. 4 (1911) [39.16]

Symphony No. 5 (1919) [32.38]

Symphony No. 6 (1923) [26.26]

Symphony No. 7 (1924) [22.49]

Pohjola's Daughter [12.40]

Luonnotar [8.08]

New York PO/Leonard Bernstein
Phyllis Curtin (sop) (in Luonnotar)
Philharmonic Hall - now Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC (all symphonies): 1 (3 Mar 1967); 2 (15 May 1902); 3 (18 Oct 1965); 4 (1 Feb 1966); 5 (27 Mar 1961); 6 (9 May 1967); 7 (28 Mar 1960, 12 Oct 1965); Manhattan Center: Luonnotar; Pohjola's Daughter (1 May 1964). ADD
Columbia Legends series
SONY CLASSICS SM4K87329 [4CDs: 62.40+64.51+71.74+49.15]


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 gaunter grandeur in the succinct Seventh Symphony.

Bernstein's 1960s Sibelius carries a good reputation. It is no surprise then that the bargain reissue of the seven symphonies in 2000 on French Sony sold well when it found its way outside France. The set used to be on two mid-price Sony Royal Classics boxes and before that in a single box.

Bernstein keeps things pressed forward in the Second Symphony. As one would expect in a work written in Sibelius's Tchaikovskian-romantic phase the conductor is in his element. In this he is aided by a recording that brings out many fine touches that go for nothing in other hands. Try the stuttering accompanimental string figures at 6.48 in the second movement. This is a stirring reading - whipped and hoarse. I would not place it above the Ormandy (also Sony Essential Classics) but it is an imaginative and fiery piece of recreative work.

Luonnotar goes quite well with a very fast pulse - faster than I have ever heard it. The strings sound fine as does the harp. Curtin (regrettably twice shown as ‘Curtis’ in the documentation) gives a pointful performance giving every sign of wanting to enunciate the delightful Finnish words. She is an improvement on Ashkenazy's Decca Söderström whose vibrato seriously damages the piece. Better are Berglund's Taru Valjakka (in an eight CD EMI Sibelius bargain box) and Panula's Mari-Anne Häggander (Bis CD270). Curtin's sometimes unmaidenly tone is not ideal but works well most of the time.

Bernstein's Pohjola's Daughter is again good - very good in fact - with the usual taut and tightly articulated string work and well-characterised woodwind. The little pizzicato rush at 3.39 is an example of Bernstein's freshly sculpted approach. He occasionally undermines things by rapid tempi that strike me as thoughtless or done with the aim of display alone. This version of the tone poem does not displace the early 1970s Decca recording by the Suisse Romande conducted by Horst Stein (Weekend Classics). That collection also contains a glorious En Saga and a black as coal Finlandia.

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 sturdy, compulsively organic interpretation reflects the grandeur with which Sibelius imbued this outstanding score. These are healthy, risk-taking Sibelius readings with safety protocols disengaged. In the First Symphony Bernstein cannot withstand the superb competition of Barbirolli’s EMI version (only in a boxed set, I am afraid), Stokowski’s 1976 account (Sony nla but included on EMI’s Stokowski volume in ‘Great Conductors of the Century’) or Maazel’s Decca VPO recording. This has nothing to do with exegesis; the issue is sound quality.

In the Sixth Symphony Bernstein finds a renewing power. He surprised me with his measured and leisurely tempo for the first movement's preface. This makes the ensuing allegro episode, taken at a vitally spirited pace, all the more telling. This is music making that is hushed, tense, virile yet poetic; overwhelming qualities in Sibelius. Listen to the building of the climactic eloquence of the second movement at 3.18 as well as the scudding abrasion of the opening bars of the third movement. Only in the finale did I wonder whether things were becoming prosaic. A more classical idyllic mood-set dominates the Third Symphony which was recorded two years before the Sixth. Bernstein makes time for impulsive gestures amid the subdued lighting of the forest glades. In the finale Bernstein is amongst the most successful, alongside Kamu on DG, at shaping a vigorous conclusion which avoids the romantic urge of the first two symphonies and yet suffuses the classical spirit with a pent-up rapture. This movement made me think of the finale of Mozart's Jupiter.

The Fourth and Fifth are on the third CD. As in the Sixth Bernstein in the Fourth Symphony adopts a very broad tempo. This is music, inward-looking, brow-furrowed. The elegantly shaped and oboe-decorated allegro is far broader and more pointful than the allegro molto vivace marking would infer. This is an extremely slow performance in which, especially in the unbearably protracted finale, idiosyncrasy tips over into eccentricity.

There is no dud among the other works in this box. The Fifth Symphony is a ‘centre grain’ interpretation where I wondered whether Bernstein's enthusiasm rather than his interest was being constantly sustained. Certainly it flares brightly in the finale. Oddly enough, in the extraordinarily personal reading of the Fourth, I never once felt that Bernstein's concentration was drifting out of focus.

The sonics are pretty good throughout without being in any way resplendent. Fresh as paint really; the only downside being the print-through pre-echo you get when a silence precedes a loud brass exclamation as in the second movement of the First Symphony. 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.

These are stereo recordings but the imperious lifelike qualities of Decca recordings at their best elude CBS. We are talking about recordings made between forty and fifty years ago. They still sounds good enough for this disc to be compared with Barbirolli, Ashkenazy and Vänskä. Its value is not yet purely historical.

The coupling scheme is CD1: 1 and 3; CD2: 2, Luonnotar; Pohjola's Daughter; CD4 4 and 5; CD4: 6 and 7. CD2 mimics the contents of a disc long separately available in the Bernstein Century series. CD3 is coupled exactly as a disc in Sony's Bernstein ‘original jackets’ box (soon to be reviewed here by Jonathan Woolf). CD1 contains a First which had a separate existence in the Bernstein's ‘Century’ series coupled with the Seventh.

This is, in general, deft Sibelius. For the most part Bernstein wrong foots the usual presumptions about swooping romanticism and inability to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality (John L Holmes). Only the Fourth Symphony is mannered in much the same way as Bernstein's 1980s recording of the Enigma with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (DG). Then again, late in his career he recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic a 51 minute Second Symphony on DG digital 419 172-1GH. This was taken from a performance in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna during October 1986. Insupportable! His 36 minute VPO/DG Fifth Symphony was similarly distended (DG 427 647-4GH c/w Symphony No. 7). Of that 1980s partial cycle the reportedly most successful ‘volley’ was Symphony No. 1 435 351-2GH at 41 minutes. Bernstein and DG never completed the Seven. Symphonies 3, 4 and 6 were left in the realms of the imagination.

The bargain price of the present set, presumably circa £20.00, perhaps prepares us for a booklet that has covers that are just plain blue - no text on the covers. You cannot, without opening it, tell which way up it is. A nice feature is that the date of the premiere appears inside the booklet track-listing underneath the main title of each work. Matthias Henke's notes are far too preoccupied with telling us what is going on in the music at a technical level to be much of an adornment.

This compilation is patented to Sony France. The set was issued there in different livery back in 2001 on 5023162 (see the lower of the two covers above). That set is still available on at 21.24 euros as well as at at 19.99 euros. will sell you that French imported set for £23.99 (amazon co uk).

This Sony UK issue is a recommendable full cycle. There are compromises but you would not be done a disservice as a neophyte to learn your Sibelius from this source.

Rob Barnett



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