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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899) [36:10]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1902) [43:18]
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1907) [26:27]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1911) [32:49]
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1919) [27:30]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1923) [23:32]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924) [21:22]
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 (1893) [13:20]
Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) [19:05]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Lorin Maazel
rec. 1963-1968, Sofiensaal, Vienna
DECCA 478 8541 [4 CDs: 79:37 + 59:22 + 52:05 +54:55 and 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray disc (in ultra-high-quality 96Hz 24-bit audio)]

I was thrilled to receive this set for review because Maazel’s recordings were my first sustained introduction to the music of Sibelius. I acquired all the LPs and it was quite nostalgic to see again the covers which are reproduced in the booklet. It was well over four decades ago since I bought the LPs and since I’ve not possessed a working turntable for many years it’s a long time since I heard Maazel’s performances except occasionally and casually over the radio; I never had them on CD [review review review].

It may be worthwhile briefly reciting the history of these recordings. Symphony No. 1 and the Karelia Suite were set down in September and March 1963 respectively. Symphony No. 2 followed in June 1964. There was then a bit of a gap until February and March 1966 when the Seventh and Fifth were recorded. The cycle was completed in March 1968 when the remaining three symphonies and Tapiola were captured. The producer for the First Symphony was John Culshaw but everything else was produced by Erik Smith. There was even greater consistency in the matter of engineering; every recording is the work of Gordon Parry. By the time these recordings were made the Decca team had significant experience of recording the VPO in the Sofiensaal and it shows.

Alhough these recordings have appeared on CD before a few comments on each symphony may be in order. I should say that my detailed listening was done using the BD-A disc – I couldn’t resist the temptation – so my comments with regard to the sound quality refer to that medium. However, I sampled the CDs, playing them through the same Marantz universal player, and they sound very handsome though the BD-A sound has even greater presence, impact and depth.

I began to draw my thoughts on this Maazel cycle together shortly after completing a review of live recordings in which Leonard Bernstein conducted this same orchestra in Symphonies 1, 2, 5 and 7 [review]. Bernstein’s readings, which date from the period 1986-1990 are truly memorable if also highly individual. Maazel, by contrast, is more direct, straightforward and objective. Robert Layton sums it up rather well in an overview essay in the booklet when he says that Maazel’s readings “are “straight”, idiomatic, as generous in emotion in the first two symphonies as they are searching and introspective in the Fourth and Sixth.” To this I’d add that the use of the word “straight” should not be seen as a euphemism for “dull”; these readings are never dull.

The First Symphony immediately establishes that the engineer’s work is really excellent. The sound has great presence and there’s an striking left-right panorama. The front-to-back perspective is very good too. I especially liked the marvellous bass definition; that’s so important with a composer who makes such use of pedal points. Maazel’s way with the first movement is thrusting and dynamic. His conducting is vital and is also sweeping. In passing I wondered how familiar the VPO would have been with the music of Sibelius at this time; not very, I suspect. Notwithstanding that, they play splendidly. The brass blaze excitingly at times and the timpanist makes a telling contribution without ever going over the top, in the way that I think the timpanist does in Sir Simon Rattle’s recent recording. I was mildly surprised that at the end of the movement the sound appears to cut off quite quickly after the last pizzicato note; there’s no real sense of the natural decay of the sound. In fact this is a feature throughout the set but it’s by no means a major drawback. The slow movement gets off to a lovely, easeful start but from gentle beginnings Sibelius covers a tremendous amount of ground and a wide range of expression in this movement. All this comes through vividly in Maazel’s hands and I appreciated the way he takes care over the composer’s wide variety of textures. The scherzo is full of life and energy. The trio affords a good, lyrical contrast but even here you sense that momentum is present. The strings declaim the opening of the finale powerfully. Maazel is driving and exciting in the Allegro molto section – and even more so the second time round. The great violin melody is nobly sung at its first appearance. Later when that theme reappears, richly scored, Maazel expertly judges the passage to make it deeply satisfying to hear; the playing is ardent yet controlled and the brass attain a majestic, graded climax. This is a super performance of the symphony and I’m not in the least surprised that it emboldened Decca to record the rest of the cycle.

The Second Symphony was next on the agenda for Maazel and Decca. His reading of the first movement is concentrated, dynamic and tautly controlled. His conducting is very purposeful and the VPO responds with playing that exhibits great drive and precision – and no little power. The pizzicati with which the slow movement opens register splendidly on BD-A. Maazel’s pacing is much more conventional than Bernstein’s idiosyncratic treatment of the music in his DG recording, previously mentioned; I mean that as a compliment to Maazel. This movement is a tremendously original conception and it’s vividly projected here. The scherzo is full of white-hot energy and the trio is sympathetically done though here, not for the first time, one registers the somewhat acid tone of the Viennese oboes. The transition to the finale is tremendous, sweeping all before it. As for the finale, it surges proudly and confidently at the start. Maazel generates significant tension in what is often a proud and assertive performance, especially near the end. Surely this is the sort of rendition that Sibelius, in his Finnish nationalist vein, must have had in mind. There is genuine grandeur to be heard in the final peroration.

I’m not sure that the account of the Third Symphony is as successful as those of the preceding two symphonies. In the first movement I admire the lean textures and tautly sprung rhythms that Maazel achieves. In many ways I like his urgency too but I came to wonder if the pace was not a little breathless at times. For comparison I turned to Osmo Vänskä’s Lahti Symphony recording (review). Vänskä is rather steadier – and achieves a little more weight as well. He brings the movement in at 10:15 whereas Maazel takes 9:27. The difference isn’t huge but it’s noticeable and I prefer Vänskä. I’m also uneasy with Maazel’s speed for the second movement. Mind you, Sibelius isn’t much help with a tempo marking – Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto – that, to me, is hedged round with qualifications. Maazel, who takes 8:17, seems a bit brisk to me but, then, Vänskä, who takes 11:12, strikes me as a shade deliberate. Perhaps this just shows how hard it is to get right what seems on paper to be a fairly simple movement – clearly the “simplicity”, if such it is, is deceptive. Incidentally, I very much like Robert Layton’s description of this movement as “a series of reflections on a gentle theme”. Maazel’s finale strikes me as a complete success. His conducting has plenty of urgency when required but there’s also just sufficient breadth when it counts. In this movement the VPO’s horns make a super contribution.

Maazel’s account of the Fourth Symphony is much more successful. My goodness, this is an austere and uncompromising score. I like the description quoted by Robert Layton in the notes: “It is as though a cyclone has ravaged the Sibelian landscape leaving him in a world torn to shreds.” In the first movement Maazel obtains a grainy, bleak sound from the VPO strings though even here there’s a depth of tine. The Viennese brass are bleakly imposing and the woodwind sound is chilling. In a dark, brooding reading Maazel brings out the concentrated, raw power of the writing. The terse nature of the second movement comes across very well. The third movement is an extraordinary creation; much of the music is stripped to bare essentials. Here Sibelius has imagined in music a lonely, cold landscape. Maazel’s gaunt reading strikes me as ideal; the exposed, spare textures are very well done by the VPO. This movement offers a prime example of the degree to which the excellence of the BD-A sound allows the listener to register the perspectives and balance of the orchestra; it all sounds very realistic. Maazel projects the finale strongly; even here, when writing in a major key, the train of Sibelius’s thoughts is enigmatic. Overall this is a very concentrated and successful performance of a challenging score.

In the Fifth Symphony the extraordinary tension and formal inventiveness of Sibelius’s first movement is well conveyed by Maazel and his orchestra. He manages the escalating pace of the recapitulation-cum-scherzo excitingly and the coda blazes. Robert Layton’s description of the second movement of the Third - “a series of reflections on a gentle theme” – might apply equally well to the middle movement of the Fifth. Quite a lot of the music is fairly relaxed; the listener needs this buffer between the eventful outer movements. There’s plenty of energy in Maazel’s rendition of the finale. The first time we hear the “Thor’s hammer” material the pace may seem a trifle swift but Maazel has his eye unerringly on the real goal. By the time the hammer is wielded for the last time – this time with the trumpets to the fore – the tempo is broad and the full grandeur of Sibelius’s writing emerges very naturally. The final climax is magnificent, setting the seal on a very fine account of the symphony.

The Sixth is the Finnish master’s “pure spring water” symphony. The VPO strings and woodwind play with great purity in the first movement and the lightness of touch that there is in much of the music is well served. The excellence of the recording allows us to appreciate the importance of the harp part – the first time that Sibelius had used the instrument in a symphony since the First Symphony. The short second movement demonstrates great economy of thought and texture by the composer and Maazel is suitably responsive. He responds well, also, to the quicksilver nature of the third movement, which is expertly articulated here. The performance of the finale is taut and incisive, In particular the strange ending, chaste and enigmatic, sounds lovely here.

So to the Seventh Symphony, which is arguably the composer’s greatest symphonic achievement. The VPO strings provide refined yet strong playing in the marvellous polyphonic passage for the string section which occurs some two or three minutes into the piece. Each of the three appearances of the crucial trombone theme is magisterial – the VPO brass are glorious in these sections. The second appearance of this theme is delivered with awesome power while the third and final iterations, quite simply, majestic; here the BD-A sound is overwhelming. The quick sections of the score impress also but it’s the passages of sonorous grandeur that really leave their mark. The coda is superbly managed; it seems to take for ever to achieve a resolution of the final chord. This wasn’t the last recording to be made but when one listens in compositional sequence then this magnificent performance crowns the Maazel cycle.

There has been a welcome retention of the two orchestral pieces that were used as “fillers” when the performances came out on LP: the Karelia Suite and Tapiola. The latter, which was the original and highly apt coupling for the Fourth Symphony, is given a taut and tense performance that I admire very much.

It’s been highly rewarding to revisit these recordings. Performance standards are uniformly high. With the possible exception of the Third Symphony I was delighted to find, returning to these performances after a good few years, that Maazel is a highly convincing and persuasive guide to these marvellous scores. When this cycle first appeared competition was less intense than is now the case. I’ve by no means heard all the complete cycles on the market. Those I have encountered include Sir Colin Davis’s excellent cycle with the Boston Symphony; Sir Colin’s re-make with the LSO (I’ve not heard all of those); Osmo Vänskä (review); and Sir Simon Rattle’s new set (review). There’s also the recent Okko Kamu set (review), which I’ve not yet heard but which is definitely on my “to do” list, while just arrived, but not yet sampled, is a cycle from Hannu Lintu. Whilst I haven’t made detailed comparisons now between Maazel and any of the complete cycles with which I’m familiar I can say with a fair degree of confidence that these Decca performances from the 1960s can still be ranked alongside the very best despite the passage of five decades.

If that’s true of the performances then it’s equally true of the quality of Decca’s sound. The BD-A format offers magnificent sound which shows just how good the Decca engineering was at this time. If you can hear these recordings in that format you’re in for a treat but if not I think you’ll be well satisfied with the re-mastered CDs; Ian Jones has done a fine job.

The presentation does full justice to these excellent recordings. Everything comes housed in a sturdy cardboard box. Within that box the four CDs are housed in twin slipcases with a third slipcase for the BD-A disc. The sizeable booklet, which is in English and German, includes evocative reproductions of the LP sleeves, contemporary photos of Maazel and the original notes. Most of these are by Robert Layton and they’re uniformly excellent. The notes about the first two symphonies are anonymous; the note for the First is good but the one about the Second is less satisfactory. I wonder why Decca didn’t commission new notes from Layton about the first two symphonies; after all, they have invited him to contribute a new overview essay about the Maazel cycle to accompany this reissue.

I rather fancy that this Sibelius cycle may be one of Maazel’s most eminent achievements in the studio. However, I should very much like Decca to test that assumption by reissuing his Vienna Tchaikovsky cycle, including a BD-A option. I’m never sure whether to recommend a reissued recording for Recording of the Month status or whether that accolade should be reserved for brand new issues. On this occasion I think I’m justified on the grounds that this is the first BD-A issue of these recordings. Make no mistake, the quality of the performances justifies it too. There could be no better way to mark the Sibelius 150th anniversary than by acquiring these excellent performances, especially since they now come in the best quality sound.

Lorin Maazel’s Sibelius cycle stands the test of time.

John Quinn




 




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