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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899) [41:46]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op 43 (1902) [52:08]
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op 82 (1919) [37:56]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924) [25:03]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Leonard Bernstein
rec. live, 4-6 October 1986 (Symphony 2); 1-2 September 1987 (Symphony 5); 1-4 October 1988 (Symphony 7); 20-24 February 1990 (Symphony 1), Großer Musikvereinssaal, Vienna
Region code: A, B, C. Picture format: 1080i 16:9, except Symphony 2 (4:3); Sound format: PCM Stereo DTS-HD MA 5.1
C MAJOR Blu-ray 732404 [166:00]

These recordings were part of a project, left incomplete at his death, for Bernstein to record a full Sibelius symphony cycle for DG. The cycle was to have been recorded live in concert with the VPO and issued in both audio and video formats. Sadly, three symphonies remained unrecorded at the time of Bernstein’s death in in October 1990. The CD versions of these performances were reviewed by Rob Barnett a few years ago. Appropriately in the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius these performances are now issued for the first time on Blu-ray.

By coincidence I received this disc in the very week that the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bernstein’s death was marked and it’s been salutary to watch these potent reminders of a great musical personality at work.

Two things caught my eye during the First Symphony, one of them trivial. The trivial thing is that Lennie conducts the first few minutes of the first movement with his spectacles folded and clutched in his left hand. Eventually we see him don them but given the often expansive gestures he is prone to making I kept expecting him to forget about the spectacles and accidentally hurl them into the midst of the orchestra. The more important feature is that Bernstein doubles the woodwind, so that there are four each of every instrument. In fact he does this in every symphony.

The First was the last of the symphonies to be recorded. The main Allegro energico of this movement is full of drive and passion. Bernstein generates a good deal of electricity and you can tell that he really feels the music. True, there are several instances of points being underlined but there’s no denying the conviction of the performance. Bernstein’s conducting is really intense. The slow movement is marked Andante (ma non troppo lento). Some may feel Bernstein doesn’t pay sufficient heed to the qualification in the tempo marking for he unfolds the music unhurriedly and with great expression; indeed he positively caresses the opening phrases. This is a big, romantic reading of the movement, though the quick central episode flashes past, and nowhere is the romantic nature better observed than in the closing pages. Lennie takes these very broadly and it seems as if the music is getting even slower as the end approaches though I’m not sure this is actually the case. This interpretation may be on the slow side but I found the expressive rewards far outweighed any questions of “mere” pacing. The third movement is very dynamic though the trio is pulled around quite a bit for expressive purposes. With only the briefest of pauses Lennie launches into the finale. The strings’ reprise of the clarinet melody with which the symphony began is big and rhetorical here. Later, when the violins sing that gorgeous G-string melody the music isn’t taken as expansively as I’d expected – but, boy, Bernstein gets his violins to sing it! The second time we hear this melody, towards the end of the movement with rippling harp and much more opulently scored, it’s simply glorious; here the VPO give the music their all. If I were to sum up Bernstein’s interpretation of the symphony I think I’d describe it as individual but very memorable.

The Second Symphony was the first to be recorded and I fancy this performance will be the most controversial. Lennie takes 52 minutes to play it. By comparison, Lorin Maazel’s 1964 recording with the same orchestra, which I’ll be reviewing soon, plays for 43:18, albeit that performance is under studio conditions. Osmo Vänskä’s recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (review) is fairly similarly timed at 44:44, as is Sir Simon Rattle’s recent live account, which takes 43:12 (review). The principal reason – though not the only one – why Bernstein is so at variance with these other three versions is that his account of the second movement lasts an astonishing 18:14. Among the other three the longest version of this movement is Vänskä; he takes 14:25.

The basic pulse for the first movement is quite steady and Bernstein manipulates the pulse quite frequently – sometimes a bit excessively – for expressive effect. However, the reading as a whole exudes character and I found it convincing. My loyalty is strained severely by the second movement, however. I can’t recall that I’ve ever heard the pizzicati from the double basses and then the cellos played quite like this. Not only are the individual notes very pronounced but also within what is already a very slow tempo Lennie indulges in quite a bit of rubato. As the movement unfolds the pace is frequently deliberate and I think that Bernstein flirts with danger several times. In his hands the music is very dramatic and rhetorical and there are times when I think the cohesion of the movement is at risk because the music is being pulled out of shape. And yet….you can’t escape the realisation that Bernstein has thought very carefully about every phrase. He’s clearly prepared to take risks in the heat of live performance. The third movement goes like lightning, with Bernstein jigging rhythmically on the podium. The trio is expansive, the phrases lovingly moulded yet I don’t think it’s overdone. The finale can only be described as epic. Again, the music is often pulled about in the conductor’s search for expressive truth but he doesn’t do this thoughtlessly or out of showmanship. Throughout the whole performance he lives and breathes every phrase and at the end he’s visibly exhausted, his absorption in the music complete. This is a controversial performance but I still found it absorbing.

The Fifth Symphony begins gently but it’s not long before Bernstein’s trademark intensity is evident, the tension racked up. I admire the way that the conductor gets the VPO to convey the craggy grandeur of the music and among many details I relished the eloquent bassoon solo against a glacial string background. What is, in effect, the scherzo finds Bernstein impelling the music forward, obtaining rhythmically alert playing. He energises the orchestra and as the movement hurtles towards its conclusion the closing pages are terrifically exciting. The thematic material on which the second movement is based is quite modest but Lennie shapes it with great care. The variations that flow from that theme are done beautifully. The finale follows with scarcely a pause and this movement shows Bernstein at his best, I think. It’s noticeable that the orchestra has reinforcements for this symphony, clearly with an eye to the finale and the “Thor’s hammer” motif. There are six trumpets and no less than seven horns. The pent-up energy at the start of the movement is palpable, even when the dynamics are low. Bernstein’s control and vision of the movement are deeply impressive and the build-up to the final peroration is handled with consummate skill. The closing pages are wonderful as the grandeur in the music mounts and is fully realised. This is a great example of Bernstein’s eloquence with the baton. This is a distinguished account of the Fifth.

If anything the Seventh is finer still. There’s great tension right at the start and a few minutes into the performance that wonderful passage of polyphony involving the whole string choir is voiced with real eloquence and concentration. The ascent to the first statement of the great trombone theme is magisterial and the declamation of the theme itself is as majestic as you could wish to hear it. The Vivacissimo and, later, the Vivace-Presto episodes are despatched with great dexterity and lightness. But it’s the moments of grandeur that impress above all. The trombone theme has almost primal power; in these episodes the entire VPO brass section, horns included, covers itself with glory. The last few minutes have tremendous intensity, Bernstein seemingly willing every note to make as effective and eloquent a contribution to the symphonic canvas as possible. This is a stand-out performance of Sibelius’s most concentrated symphony.

Before I attempt to sum up I should just say a few words about presentation. The films were directed by Humphrey Burton and the audio production was in the hands of another long-time Bernstein collaborator, John McClure. The camera work is pretty good, though techniques have moved on somewhat since these films were made. It’s frustrating that the Second Symphony must be viewed through a “narrow bore” 4:3 picture. The sound quality struck me as decent though not outstanding. However, I need to put two caveats onto that verdict. Firstly, we’re dealing with sound that is over 25 years old. Secondly, I don’t have my Blu-ray video player linked into my hi-fi system; those who do will probably get better results that I obtained through the sound base unit that I have coupled to my TV.

Even if the sound and vision may not be up to the very latest standards it’s the performances for which you’ll buy this disc. Len Mullenger described these performances to me as “wilful but utterly compelling”. I really can’t say better than that, though the word “wilful” applies less to the Fifth and Seventh symphonies, I think. Leonard Bernstein, as a conductor was an astonishing re-creative artist, albeit a controversial one. In these Sibelius performances he holds nothing back; he is utterly committed and absorbed and the results are, as Len said, utterly compelling. This is a great conductor at work and getting splendid performances from an orchestra which clearly held him in high regard.
John Quinn



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