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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39 (1898) [38:21]
Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52 (1904) [27:23]
Rakastava Op. 14 (1911) [10:28]
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 25-29 April, 7-11 November 2006.
EXTON OVCL-00279 [65:44]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43 (1901) [44:44]
Tapiola (1925) [18:47]
Swan of Tuonela (1893) [8:45]
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 25-29 April, 30-31 January, 1-3 February 2007.
EXTON OVCL-00292 [72:19]
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63 (1911) [32:17]
Symphony No.5 in E flat major, Op.82 (1914-15) [31:04]
Finlandia (1899) [7:59]
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 25-29 April 2006, 30-31 January, 1-3 February 2007
EXTON OVCL-00282 [71:20]
Experience Classicsonline

It’s a unforgiving field of arms for any new set to enter and this one is not yet fully in circulation outside Japan. Numerous cycles exist and the whole weight of Sibelian recorded history bears down on the catalogue. That has done nothing to discourage Exton which is an imprint of Octavia Records in Yokohama; nor should it. Their confidence is reflected in asking premium price and in recording a complete cycle. There’s no hesitant dipping of a toe in the water here: we have instead three CDs available now and the fourth believed imminent. The distribution of these discs in the UK and beyond also happens to coincide with Askenazy’s seventieth birthday last year (2007) and a crop of Decca reissues.
Has Sibelius ever been so popular or so well served? Pretty well every set or part set ever made is currently available or has been within the last five years. We’ll have to except the Watanabe cycle and hope that someone will take the hint (see footnote). Even so, Rozhdestvensky’s USSRSO set from the very early 1970s has reappeared on the Russian label Venezia. Some conductors have recorded the seven two or three times: Maazel (Decca, Sony), Berglund (EMI 2x, Warner), Davis (Philips, BMG, LSO Live) and Segerstam (Chandos; Ondine). Ashkenazy now joins that elect band. His first cycle from Decca dates back to 1978-85 and is still handily available. It has also been the source of Decca compilations and one-offs.
Ashkenazy is therefore no stranger to the Sibelius symphonies. His Decca recordings were amongst the earliest recorded evidence of his move to add the podium to his soloist role. Even so he tended to keep to symphonies with the occasional foray into the concerto and the odd tone poem. Decca showed a strong commitment to this conductor, wanting to set a new gold standard to replace Maazel's classic 1960s recordings of the symphonies with the Vienna Phil (still to be heard on Eloquence). That Decca box is still available and is well worth seeking out though you can do even better without trying too hard. It is still good Sibelius allowing for Söderström's ruinous vibrato in that beautifully minimalist tone poem, Luonnotar. Christopher Nupen also used Ashkenazy and Swedish Radio forces in his 1980s biographical video of Sibelius.. Ashkenazy also led a Sibelius Festival on 15-20 August 2005 in six concerts of music featuring the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; by no means an isolated example.
For the present three discs Ashkenazy is in expansive form. His Second Symphony is attractively enough done with phrasing often italicised. Where however is the molten inspiration you find in Barbirolli (RPO on Chesky and now Testament), Ormandy (Sony-CBS) and Beecham (BBC). Still this is very sanguinely recorded and the grunt of the Finale and mordant edge of the brass is bound to impress.
Much the same can be said of the First Symphony which is relaxed and in no way challenges Kamu (DG) or the red-blooded Barbirolli (EMI, only as part of a flawed box). It is well recorded and there are some revelatory moments aided and abetted by a grand recording. It just is not a cohesive whole in the face of well-structured powerhouse alternatives.
From the hyper-romantic drama of the First we come to the Bantock-dedicated Third Symphony which as a reading is much better than the First but still somehow diffuse. The finale is better with some wonderfully chesty playing from the double-basses and a gruffly burred ‘burble’ from the baritonal horns in the finale.
His Tapiola is laid back but I have been rather spoilt by the recent Eloquence Van Beinum recording with its chiselled phrasing and constant engagement and concentration. Ashkenazy has never, as far as I know, tackled the complete sequence of the Lemminkainen Legends: he is not alone either in cherry-picking The Swan of Tuonela. This is shiningly done but quite apart from the occasional mannered emphasis it lacks the intense sheen given to it in Mravinsky's classic Melodiya recording  in Moscow in 1965.
The Fourth Symphony is just as well recorded, sombre, brooding - even more so than his Tapiola. The maiden innocence of the second movement is brought out, making me more than ever think of this as a chilly equivalent to the Pelléas et Mélisande and King Christian II suites. The Tempo largo recalls an icy arcadian realm between warm life and cold death. Ashkenazy wrings a vulnerable kindness from the final Allegro. It's not as forbidding as usual but it is even more exciting. This is in fact an excellent Sibelius 4.
His Fifth Symphony lacks sufficient tension (try 4:50 in the first movement) although there is recompense in the splendid transparency and impact of this recording. He does however conjure a wonderful swing to the crowning section of the movement. The finale itself takes a long long reach for the tolling horns and the razory pianissimo tolling shiver of the violins at 5:09 is very adroitly and movingly done. A good Sibelius 5 with some sections even better.
His melodramatic Finlandia is gruffly played and brayed out for all it's worth. Hymnal-patriotism shimmers in the Nordic sun. I am not however shaken from my allegiance to Horst Stein and the Suisse Romande and Barbirolli and the Hallé but this is fine Sibelius.
I hope to return to the final disc (OVCL00293: with Symphonies 6 & 7, Karelia & Valse Triste), when it becomes available to UK reviewers. For now these three discs represent a mixed blessing.
Rob Barnett


Comment added

Rob Barnett says of hitherto unavailable Sibelius (whole or part) cycles "We’ll have to except the Watanabe cycle and hope that someone will take the hint."
In fact, 1, 2, 5 & 7 conducted by Watanabe are available on a Denon double CD. I find them magnificent, most definitely not with an Anglo-Saxon or Russian accent as with many interpretations. Of course, it would be marvellous to have the others.

Martin Walker

The full cycle is now available


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