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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1898) [34:43]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1910-11) [38:28]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. May/June 2012, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Hybrid SACD, stereo and multichannel. Reviewed in SACD stereo
BIS-SACD-1996 [74:10]
The Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä first came to my attention with the superb series of Kalevi Aho recordings he made for BIS. I came to his Lahti Sibelius a little later and, more recently, I heard his Minnesota remake of the Second and Fifth symphonies (review). At the time of writing the Minnesota Orchestral Association’s lock-out – which began in October 2012 – has resulted in the cancellation of all concerts and recordings until at least the end of April 2013. That’s very bad news for Vänskä, the orchestra’s music director since 2002, and for BIS; the latter are also affected by the turmoil at the Malaysian Philharmonic, with whom they’ve already made a brace of fine recordings.
Given that Vänskä’s Lahti Sibelius set was so well received one might wonder why BIS deemed it necessary to embark on a second one. For the most part concertgoers and music buyers have responded well to Vänskä’s latest thoughts on the Second and Fifth symphonies; indeed, my colleague William Hedley made the SACD a Recording of the Month (review). No question, these are supremely assured performances and, in the case of the Second, very spacious too, yet for all that they miss the fallible, all-too-human perspectives that inform the earlier cycle.
To a certain extent it’s about the orchestral ‘sound’; on both new discs the Minnesota band are highly polished – chromium-plated, even – but these dry, not very tactile Orchestra Hall recordings lack the warmth and breadth of the Ristinkirkko, Lahti, ones. Balances are rather different too, so that the gorgeous harp figures that start around 8:08 in the first Andante of No. 1 – Lahti version – are not so easily discerned in Minnesota. That said, Vänskä is never less than thrilling, and in both versions of this symphony it’s clear he has a rare and wonderful sense of the work’s architecture. What pulls me back to Lahti though is the conductor’s proselytizing zeal – a fire in the belly – that makes the music burn with a magnesium light and heat.
There are many instances in the Lahti First where one is drawn deep into the music – from the eloquent clarinet solo at the outset and those sheer cliffs of brass to that powerful accelerating passage at the end of the first Andante – a feat the Minnesotans can’t begin to emulate. Take the sense-alerting start to the second Andante of the Lahti version; such eloquence and inwardness are absent from the new recording, as is the timbral sophistication and presence of the older CD. In short – and thanks in no small part to a very well engineered, sympathetic recording – the Lahti performance breathes and palpitates in a way that the cooler, more metropolitan Minnesota version never does.
I didn’t intend this to be a panegyric to Vänskä’s earlier reading of No. 1, but hearing it in this comparative context underlines just what a superbly realised and deeply affecting version it is. The Minnesota sound – both the orchestral sheen and the closer recording – drains all the colour and character from the gloriously emphatic Scherzo. Not only that, but the unfolding narrative of the last movement is so much easier to grasp in the Lahti performance; also, at the close of the latter the athletic, forthright Lahti timps strike just the right note of finality.
If you must have Vänskä’s Sibelius in multichannel – it seems many die-hard SACD fans across the pond simply don’t listen in stereo any more – this new First will be a no-brainer. However, if performance is the most important part of the audio equation the Lahti recording wins hands down. In fact, I’ll wager that in years to come this landmark recording of the First – made in 1996 – will be regarded as a classic.
That said, the Minnesota Fourth has an unexpected trenchancy and power that is very persuasive, and there’s a glow to the sound that I don’t hear in their version of the First. Moreover, the weight and amplitude of this fine orchestra seems better caught than before. In the opening Tempo molto moderato I was transfixed by the quality of the Minnesotans’ yearning strings and louring bass, not to mention those Brucknerian brass chorales. As for the Allegro molto vivace it’s darkly skittish, and the In tempo largo is winningly phrased and remarkably well sustained. As fine as the more pliant Lahtians are in the Fourth they don’t always have the seamlessness and focus of their American counterparts.
The concentration of the Minnesotans really pays dividends in those long, gyre-like unwindings of the Largo; and for once I can’t fault the recording when it comes to nuance and detail. Perhaps the pared-down textures of this symphony – it’s central tranquillity and poise always a joy to hear – are much better suited to BIS’s recording set-up in Orchestra Hall. It’s only in the big moments that the lack of depth and ‘air’ had me longing for the fullness and three-dimensionality of the Lahti Fourth. I daresay the multichannel layer offers more spatial information, and that the sound is more immersive, but given that the vast majority of listeners are still wedded to two channels I’d welcome a more natural, involving stereo mix.
Anyone hoping for a neat either/or choice here will be disappointed, for the honours are quite evenly divided; the Lahti First is a clear winner, but despite the felicities of the earlier Fourth the formidable focus of the newer one makes it a front-runner too. That means serious Sibelians will have to own both. Now we can only hope that the hiatus in Minneapolis comes to an end soon, so that this impressive – if not always supplanting – cycle can be completed.
Vänskä’s latest thoughts on Sibelius are certainly worth hearing, but the splendid Lahti cycle remains his greatest achievement yet.
Dan Morgan
Masterwork Index: Symphony 1 ~~ Symphony 4