This is certainly
a most welcome issue, courtesy of ArkivMusic’s ‘on demand’ service.
On its original release, Jansons’ Sibelius First Symphony
was hailed as the finest digital account thus far, and was praised
to the hilt. I don’t find anything here to challenge that view
and would have no difficulty in placing this as a prime recommendation.
It is a shame that
so few of Jansons’ EMI recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic
are currently available - although some do crop up intermittently
various budget reissue series. Indeed, to go by the paucity
of Jansons issues on that label recently, it seems that EMI
are overlooking one of the world’s finest conductors in favour
of recording the Berlin Philharmonic in exactly the same repertoire
that they have been espousing for several decades.
Those lucky enough
to be familiar with Jansons’ recordings of Dvořák, Shostakovich
and Tchaikovsky with his Oslo orchestra will know what to expect;
there is a freshness and vitality that is all too rare in the
work of other conductors. Not a small part of this is due to
the scrupulous - though never pedantic - adherence to matters
of dynamics and phrasing. Jansons appears to have complete faith
in Sibelius’s judgement as a composer, using the music itself
as a foundation for his own interpretation, rather than seeking
to enforce his own ideas upon the composer. As a result, this
is perhaps one of the most exciting accounts of the symphony
that I have heard. Nothing is exaggerated and yet there is a
clarity and certainty of purpose that is utterly compelling.
The first movement
begins most atmospherically, with Leif Arne Pedersen’s baleful
clarinet solo slithering mysteriously until the shimmering strings
arrive to give us some sense of harmonic grounding. The strings
are here, it must be conceded, glorious. There is an icy chill
to some of the inner rhythmic motifs that contrasts with the
warmth of the melodic writing. As the music builds, the sonorous
brass choir enter, the horns roar exultantly … This is a big-hearted
‘bear hug’ of a performance, exhibiting a generosity of spirit
that would be expected of a Barbirolli performance - or, perhaps
controversially, a Bernstein. And yet there is never any doubt
that Jansons has his gaze fixed squarely on the finishing line;
for every expressive nudge here, or excitable stringendo
there, there is no lack of forward momentum.
The other movements
fare equally well. In the Andante Jansons and his players
create the requisite contrasts of mood and atmosphere. The Tchaikovsky-esque
opening is beautifully played by the strings, with the ‘sighing’
appoggiaturas never over done and all the more touching for
that. As the music becomes more restless in the latter stages
of the movement, the Oslo players respond magnificently and
there is some truly explosive brass playing.
The third movement
comes off very well indeed, as does the unusual (for its time)
finale. All in all, I found this work more enjoyable, more involving
than ever before. Except in the case of a handful of romantic
and/or early twentieth century composers (Brahms, Mahler, Shostakovich,
Nielsen, Elgar), there are very few whose first symphonies are
both wholly characteristic and that stand up to the quality
of their successors. In the past I had thought of Sibelius’s
First as succeeding in the former, but not in the latter.
After hearing this performance I must confess that I was wrong.
As to comparisons,
I would still not want to be without Sakari Oramo’s stunningly
engineered account (reviewed here and here) or Maazel’s VPO account (review). Oramo’s performance is roughly
equal in stature to Jansons’, although it has to be conceded
that the CBSO in the early twenty-first century is about the
best it has ever been and leaves even the virtuosity of the
Oslo Philharmonic a fair distance behind. Oramo offers as couplings
a slightly controversial account of the Third Symphony
and a magnificent Finlandia.
Jansons also offers
a very decent account of Finlandia and an exuberant performance
of the Karelia Suite. If it is simply a case of building
a collection of the symphonies, then Oramo is better value for
money - and if you want all of the symphonies under the same
conductor then Oramo is certainly my first recommendation for
modern recordings. Nevertheless, having finally heard Jansons’
recording of this symphony I cannot imagine ever wanting to
part with it.
On a final note, ArkivCD
are now including reproductions of the full booklet notes that
accompanied the original issues. Here we are given a straightforward
and informative essay by Noël Goodwin.
Owen E. Walton