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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Seven Symphonies, Tone Poems, Violin Concertos

Symphony No. 1 (1898) [39.34]
Symphony No. 2 (1902) [46.33]
Symphony No. 3 (1907) [29.31]
Symphony No. 4 (1911) [28.29]
Symphony No. 5 (1915) [31.35]
Symphony No. 6 (1923) [28.17]
Symphony No. 7 (1924) [22.30]
Violin Concerto (1903) [34.23]*
Finlandia (1890) [7.57]
Karelia Suite (1893) [16.34]
Tapiola (1926) [18.18]
En Saga () [19.27]
Two Serious Melodies (1915) [7.23]*
Two Serenades (1915) [14.55]*
Romance for Strings [5.29]**
Valse Triste [5.23]**
Luonnotar (1913) [9.19]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy **
Boris Belkin (violin)*
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, Apr 1978 (concerto), Nov 1978 (Melodies), Jan 1979 (Serenades), Nov 1979 (2), Mar 1980 (4, Finlandia, Luonnotar), Oct 1980 (5), Mar 1981 (Saga), Mar 1982 (7, Tapiola); Walthamstow Town Hall; June 1984 (6), Oct 1984 (1), Oct 1985 (Karelia), Symphony Hall, Boston Oct 1992 (Romance Valse Triste).
DECCA 473 590-2 [5CDs: 72.49+71.24+76.32+73.48+77.21]


This set is likely, at least in part, to be a known quantity. Some will remember the component recordings emerging piecemeal during the dawn of digital technology from 1978 to 1983. This was the very same period when Sony PCM digital machines were being used at sessions even if the resulting digital master was then rendered down onto that most fallible and primitive of analogue media - the vinyl LP.

Decca's recording balance is distinctive and it grips the jugular and does not let go.

The first disc groups two works at polar opposites. The First Symphony at the Tchaikovskian boundary; the Fourth standing at the sparest Ultima Thule. Ashkenazy takes a spicy, accentuated and urgent line and wittingly or otherwise brings out the Pathétique echoes in the second movement. The aggression-chased violin figures in the third movement are further evidence of Ashkenazy's strengths. He takes second place to the overwhelming Barbirolli and the Hallé (only in the complete Sibelius box on EMI Classics). The wonder is that Barbirolli's EMI Second is so slack when compared with the scorching Royal Phil version now on Chesky.

The Fourth is the antithesis of the First's exuberant romance. It is spare and from another 'world' altogether. Had it been written after the Great War one could understand it. As it is it seems to have taken the threat of mortality (a throat tumour) to produce this burning brand of a piece. It must have been a confusing shock for the audience in Birmingham on 1 October 1912 when Sibelius conducted its premiere in the same programme as Elgar's The Music Makers. While some would have had to just from the plunging romanticism of the Second Symphony to the more classically cool approach of the Third Symphony (dedicated to Granville Bantock - another Birmingham connection) nothing would have prepared them for this although Holst's Planets - Neptune and parts of Mars in particular were to point the way. Ashkenazy shows concentration, harshness and an unwillingness to soften the angularities and shudders with sugar dust. The horn whoops in the final allegro register as never before. This is a performance which I would recommend to people who have heard the Fourth Symphony once and decided they do not like it. Those final hoarse statements seem to prepare the way for the Seventh Symphony rather than the Fifth.

The vivacissimo of the Second Symphony leading into the finale (CD2 trs 3 an 4) is an object lesson in majesty and radiant strength at one end of the spectrum and gruff and rasping shale at the other. This is deeply satisfying playing. Ashkenazy builds climaxes in a familiar way. I thought of the bellowing Beecham. At 12.05 in the finale the work develops an angular strutting quality which I rather warmed to.

The Finlandia is speedily peremptory. Give me Barbirolli (EM) or Stein (Decca) in preference. Karelia is also smartly pacy with excellent taut tempi.

The Third Symphony is freshly done. The attack is sharply etched. In the first movement, at 2.30, Sibelius seems to be skipping gears with an effect that sounds like a double intake and catching of breath. The interpretation excels in conjuring stillness. It is really quite special. Details are crisply presented to the listener and rhythmic material is eagerly propulsive.

The Sixth Symphony shares the same disc. Never have the horns whooped with such rough exuberance contrasting with some of the mannered emphases that preceded the final flourishes (end track 6 CD3). Ashkenazy, the incendiary, produces some smashingly adrenalin-pumping playing in track 7. This work is usually treated to a wan and rather fey atmosphere. I was 'brought up' on Karajan's DG recording which always sounded bled and albino. Ashkenazy infuses the work with a peculiarly Russian intensity.

If you allow Ashkenazy time to work his steady magic you will find much in his Tapiola - a work of studied contrasts. A host of details rise slowly or with unflinching force. The screeching gale from 15.33 perhaps gives us some insight into how another 'flammable' powerhouse (Evgeny Mravinsky) might have tackled this eerie work. The Philharmonia are on breath-taking form.

The Seventh Symphony starts in relaxed style - religioso - almost casually. This is not an imperious reading .... at least at first. The conductor is not trying to command the listener's attention. However things soon tighten and the music begins to speak of life, noble and tragic, rising from the slough that gave it birth. The music seems to know that it will sink back into that slough and form new material - ever renewing. While there is a hint of congestion, the way that Ashkenazy wrings out the jagged and corrugated lines of the foothills of the finale is memorable. However I still miss the hieratic bray of the Leningrad Phil's trombonist on the 1965 Moscow Mravinsky version (Olympia, BMG, EMI).

Ashkenazy is similarly successful in the Fifth Symphony where deliberation reaps rewards in stressing architecture. He is helped along by Decca's brand of recording balance perfection. While spotlighting so that every single instrument seems to register with stunning immediacy the recording leaves the listener unfatigued. The finale is rife with buzzing intensity, expectation and a power that is both raw and broad.

En Saga has the benefit of refined sound somewhat less glaringly lit than my continuing reference version - the 1972 Horst Stein-Suisse Romande recording from the same company. Ashkenazy is not quite as visceral as Stein and although Furtwängler 1942 Berlin version (on Fred Maroth's Music and Arts label) wipes the floor with both of them its vintage mono sound makes it contentious to recommend as a library version.

The Söderström was the first digital Luonnotar. It is a work that feeds on the clarity of digital technology. Much of it proceeds quietly - always incisive and often at speed - but hushed. Towards its peak the singing takes on the brittle gestural brilliance of an operatic scena. This concise creation epic was a natural for Sibelius and together with the minimalist subtlety of The Bard encapsulates the essential Sibelius. As a performance Söderström captures the dramatic grandeur but Taru Valjakka on EMI has the purer steadier-toned voice. At this stage in Söderström's career her voice had darkened and vibrato began to intrude. If only she could have recorded this work during her greener years - for example in the 1960s she was in superb voice for her Swedish Society Discofil recording of Gösta Nystroem's Sinfonia del Mare.

Competition for the Violin Concerto is ferocious. My reference disc is the BMG-Melodiya of Oistrakh with Rozhdestvenky, fruitily voluptuous, taut and hyper-romantic - the resolution of many opposites. Other good versions include Mullova (Philips) and Haendel (EMI Classics), Also I have been greatly taken with Julian Rachlin's Sony version heard by me as part of the Sony Pittsburgh/Maazel set of the symphonies. This can be had separately on SONY SK53272; as of March 2003 this could be ordered from Berkshire Record Outlet at $5.99.

I have been unduly dismissive of Belkin's reading in the past. His highly coloured and vulnerable vibrato is not quite as exaggerated as I had remembered. This is an exciting and sensitively 'painted' reading and can be compared with Tossy Spivakovsky's and Tauno Hannikainen's on Everest. It also emphasises the wide dynamic range - one can hardly hear the first few bars - I had to remind myself that this is in fact a late analogue recording. The Opp. 69 and 77 pieces, which are mostly rather wan soliloquies in the manner of the Stenhammar Serenade, are a valuable anhang to the Concerto. The pity is that Belkin did not also add the Humoresques whose quintessentially nostalgic and chilly beauty are heard to the best effect in the hands of Aaron Rosand (Vox). The Romance and Valse Triste are welcome and are done in suitably hushed style.

The picture is completed by Robert Layton's apophthegmatic liner notes in English, French and German. The box includes the five CDs each in its own very plain white card sheath. Minimalist packaging then though not such as to cause upset to our more easily outraged reviewers. You can compare the approach to the Berglund Helsinki set from EMI, the Maazel from Sony and the Sakari from Naxos.

Few sets are as consistently strong as this one. The Barbirolli on EMI has quite a few blindspots as well as some devastating strengths. The same can be said of the Maazel-Pittsburgh (Sony). Maazel/VPO on Decca (including Eloquence) is a strong contender as are Collins (Beulah nla), Sakari (Naxos - not as vividly recorded) and Vänskä (Bis - recorded more naturally than Ashkenazy).

This set pulls no punches on the brass front. The Philharmonia sound satisfyingly statuesque, like a massive granite outcrop; just as harsh as Sibelius intended. The recording and the readings have the muscle of a juggernaut and the fragile precision of a steel butterfly. If you like your Sibelius to blaze and sparkle, with a bass that could turn molybdenum to dust then this is for you.

Rob Barnett

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