The Sakari Oramo Collection
CD 1
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82 [31:19]
Edvard GRIEG (1847-1903) Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, excerpts [10:45]
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. II. Adagio sostenuto [11:17]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945) Romanian Dances, Sz 68/BB 76 [6:33]
SIBELIUS Karelia Suite, Op. 11 [15:04]
CD 2
BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116/BB 123 [38:06]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77. II. Scherzo: Allegro [6:31]
John FOULDS (1880-1939) Dynamic Triptych for piano and orchestra, Op. 88. III. Dynamic Rhythm [5:30]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor. IV. Adagietto and V. Rondo-finale [24:16]
Nikolai Lugansky, piano (CD1 T7), Leila Josefowicz, violin (CD2 T6), Peter Donohoe, piano (CD2 T7)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bartók)/Sakari Oramo
rec. May-June 2000 (Grieg), April 2001 (Sibelius), September 2004 (Bartók), October 2004 (Mahler), January 2005 (Rachmaninov) January 2006 (Foulds, Shostakovich), Symphony Hall, Birmingham (all but Bartók), Kulttuuritalo Hall of Culture, Helsinki (Bartók)
WARNER CLASSICS AND JAZZ 2564 68694-5 [74:54 + 74:18]
This two-disc set will attract an unusual audience. Most of its buyers will likely be admirers of Oramo from his ten-year stint as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Others, perhaps, will be his new neighbours in Sweden, where he now conducts the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. I, by contrast, investigated The Sakari Oramo Collection to further my quest for the perfect performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5.
The search continues. This is an unusual Sibelius Fifth, not least because of its engineering. On my speaker system, the bass was so prominent that it equalled the rest of the orchestra in weight; while the winds and brass made their contributions from a deeply recessed position in the sound-picture, rattling woomphs sounded out from the subwoofer as if I were playing a rock CD.
In terms of the performance itself, the most unusual movement is the first, which is taken very quickly, too quickly. The opening wind solos [approx. 0:30-0:54] are strung together into one long melodic arc, which is illuminating insofar as it points forward to the place near the end of the movement [7:50-8:15] where these solos will again become one long melody. However, I find this rapid pace counterproductive because Sibelius’s point is not continuity from beginning to end, but gradual change, or metamorphosis. I have always seen the first movement as a process of unfolding, of movement forward, but for Oramo there is no unfolding: at the beginning, everything is already there. The transition between the movement’s two halves does not really exist, since each half is taken roughly equally quickly. This very different vision of the symphony will appeal to somebody, but it does not work for me.
The other two movements are substantially better, and not by coincidence they are more conventional in outlook. The second movement is paced very well; the finale is slower than usual by the clock (nearly ten minutes) but does not feel particularly slow. I can still think of several performances of this symphony which I prefer: Rattle’s or Berglund’s (in Helsinki on EMI) or Vänskä’s on BIS. This performance is simply not competitive.
Somewhat anticlimactically, three snippets of Grieg’s Peer Gynt follow the symphony. “Morning Mood” is quite nice, though Bjarte Engeset’s reading on Naxos with the Malmö Symphony is preferable (not to mention Beecham’s classic EMI recording). “Anitra’s Dance” is very well done, as is “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”
Then it’s on to the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, with soloist Nikolai Lugansky. This performance feels somewhat perfunctory; it’s as much Lugansky’s fault for always sounding good but never sounding great as it is Warner Music’s fault for choosing an excerpt which does little to shed light on the art of Sakari Oramo. The Bartók Romanian Dances follow, played with rustic enthusiasm and wit by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This performance is the first to count as an unqualified success.
The first CD concludes with a very successful Sibelius Karelia Suite. The outer movements are festive and jovially played though there are some sloppy piccolo turns and a trumpet flub in the finale. The slow central ballade begins rather faster than I’ve heard it but slows down on its way to a very subdued conclusion. I quite like Oramo’s way of seeing things here; this suite is the one thing on the album to which I’m most likely to return in the future.
The second disc boasts an impressive Bartók Concerto for Orchestra; evidently, Oramo has a genuine affinity for the Hungarian composer. The introduction is brooding and mysterious; the Finnish Radio Symphony contributes occasionally rough but generally good playing. Soloist contributions are well balanced against the rest of the orchestra, and the harp is an effective accompanist to some of the first movement’s wind solos. I love the spunk of the fourth movement’s central section in this performance. The finale is energetic and really gets the spirit of the czardas right, although the recent Philadelphia Orchestra SACD with Christoph Eschenbach is even more impressively colorful. In fact, that Ondine CD generally benefits from superior sound and the Philadelphia group’s legendary playing.
The rest of the second disc is a bit of a hodge-podge. Leila Josefowicz makes a bravura appearance in the scherzo from Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, but the Birmingham woodwinds are again far too backwardly placed, making little impression on the proceedings. Peter Donohoe is impressive, too, in an excerpt from John Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych, which I had never before heard and which calls on the pianist to deliver a cascade of exciting, rhythmically charged repeated notes. The program ends with the two final movements from Mahler’s Fifth, the adagietto very pretty but the finale somewhat underwhelming for all its cheeriness.
Maybe it was to be expected of a project of this nature, but the Sakari Oramo Collection strikes me as quite the uneven effort. Oramo has an obvious affinity for Bartók, but many of the other performances here are out of place on a ‘greatest hits’ collection. Another critic, in reviewing one of the performances presented here, notes that the sound quality given to the Birmingham orchestra makes it sound smaller than it really is, a spot-on assessment. Emphatic bass aside, this is an underpowered recording of an orchestra which, presumably, sounds better live.
I am not sure the programming of the two CDs serves them well, either. It would have been more interesting, surely, to opt for concert-like progressions of overture-concerto-featured work. CD1 could have opened with the Karelia Suite, included a complete performance of the Rachmaninov Concerto, and then closed with the Sibelius Fifth. CD2 would have led with the Grieg excerpts, moved on to the complete Foulds Triptych, and closed with the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. (Better still, the album could have been condensed to one disc, comprising the two Bartók works, Karelia and the Foulds.) As is, this album is merely a sequence of rather oddly arranged highlights. I doubt anyone will want to listen through it in one sitting. As its title warns, this is for Sakari Oramo fans only.
Brian Reinhart
A selection of greatest hits which falls short of the mark … see Full Review