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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Introduction to Symphony No 1 + Symphonic Themes [31:03]
Symphony No 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899) [41:16]
Introduction to Symphony No 2 + Symphonic Themes [26:50]
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 43 (1902) [45:49]
Introduction to Symphony No 3 + Symphonic Themes [24:40]
Symphony No 3 in C major, Op 52 (1907) [30:12]
Introduction to Symphony No 4 + Symphonic Themes [27:05]
Symphony No 4 in A minor, Op 63 (1911) [40:15]
Introduction to Symphony No 5 + Symphonic Themes [27:13]
Symphony No 5 in E-flat major, Op 82 (1919) [34:20]
Introduction to Symphony No 6 + Symphonic Themes [24:59]
Symphony No 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1923) [30:58]
Introduction to Symphony No 7 + Symphonic Themes [28:53]
Symphony No 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924) [22:32]
Special feature: ‘Sibelius, Lintu and 7 Symphonies [59:37]
‘Sort of Sibelius!’ A series of short films by Pila Hirvensalo [80:00]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. live Helsinki Music Centre, dates unspecified.
Region code: 0. Picture format: 16:9; Sound format: PCM Stereo DD 5.1.
Audio language: Finnish. Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
ARTHAUS 101796 [5 DVDs: 565 mins]

It’s very fitting that the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius should see the release of this handsome tribute from one of Finland’s leading orchestras.

The set includes live performances of all seven of the symphonies. The venue is the impressive, ultra-modern main concert hall of the Helsinki Music Centre, opened as recently as 2011. The audience sits above and on all sides of the wide and spacious stage. It’s a large hall, capable of seating some 1700 people and it appears that the audience has excellent lines of sight to the stage. I don’t know exactly how good the acoustics are inside the hall but from the evidence of these recordings I would imagine that the acoustics are excellent. Certainly one key attribute of these performances is the impressive clarity of the sound, though Hannu Lintu, his players and the recording engineers must all claim a share of the credit for this.

The producers of this set of recordings have gone to town in presentational terms but before discussing that aspect comment must be made on the performances themselves. If I appear to say relatively little about the performances, however, that shouldn’t be interpreted negatively. These are excellent and consistent accounts of the symphonies which I’ve enjoyed greatly. Throughout, the playing of the orchestra is excellent. The strings provide a firm foundation for the music, the orchestra boasts first-rate woodwind players and the brass distinguish themselves with playing that is often powerful but never overbearing. Clearly Hannu Lintu works very productively with the orchestra. He’s been their Chief Conductor since 2013 – succeeding Sakari Oramo. These performances and his verbal introductions to each work demonstrate that he’s a committed and perceptive Sibelian.

The cycle starts auspiciously with an exceptionally searching rendition of the clarinet solo at the start of the First Symphony; the solo is full of mystery and tension. Lintu’s account of the first movement is full of energy and drama. He and his players mould the phrases with great empathy in the second movement; here the playing is very refined. This is a very persuasive reading, not least the beguiling closing pages. After a vital rendition of the third movement there’s scarcely a pause before the finale is launched – this is a feature of several of the performances. I found the finale by turns dynamic and expressive. My only reservation is that the very end seems a little low-key, not least because the timpani roll is tame. Overall, though, this performance is very good indeed.

The Second comes off very well too. The reading of the first movement is spirited and features plenty of light and shade. Here, as elsewhere in the cycle, the music is made to sound clean and clear. The slow movement mixes mystery and drama while the third movement is fast and furious with a trio that is beautifully sung. Lintu offers an exciting and convincing account of the finale, culminating in a conclusion that has appropriate, unforced grandeur. I noted with some interest that even after a ‘big finish’ such as this Lintu holds the moment, not encouraging applause for quite a few seconds.

In his recent live cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker (review) Sir Simon Rattle reduces the size of the string section quite significantly for the Third Symphony. Lintu, however, uses the full string section yet there’s no suggestion of heaviness. His first movement is very mobile, precisely articulated and dynamic. When reviewing Lorin Maazel’s set of the symphonies I said that I felt he was too brisk in the second movement while Osmo Vänskä (review) struck me as being too deliberate. Well, in terms of timing Hannu Lintu, who takes 9:41, is “Mr In-between” and it seems to me that his pacing is just right. He makes no perceptible pause before the finale in which he builds the excitement very well. This is an excellent reading of the symphony and I agreed with the man in the audience who shouted “Bravo!” at the end.

The Fourth is also a conspicuous success. I love the husky tone of the solo cello at the start. The first movement comprises gaunt, almost forbidding music. Lintu has its measure and the orchestra plays superbly – one has the impression that they have first-hand knowledge of the frozen tundra. The slow movement is spare and powerful; Lintu leads a gripping performance. Once again he takes the finale attacca and here there is strong momentum and conviction. Even though it’s well over 40 years since I first heard this symphony – in Maazel’s recording – I’m still not sure that I truly understand this finale. However, I can recognise an impressive performance when I hear it, not just of the last movement but of the symphony as a whole.

The first movement of the Fifth unfolds really well; Lintu gives the music just the right amount of space to make its effect. The scherzo episode is full of vitality. There’s also vitality – indeed, terrific drive – at the start of the finale. In these opening paragraphs the performance displays real urgency from which the ‘Thor’s Hammer’ music emerges very naturally. However, about halfway through that passage Lintu broadens the tempo, anticipating the imposing way the ‘Thor’s Hammer’ music will be treated at the end of the work. I think he overplays his hand here; it’s a very rare misjudgement. But momentum is soon restored and the symphony ends very impressively, its closing pages delivered with fine feeling.

The Introduction to the first movement of the Sixth is marvellous: the sound is pure and very clear. The main body of the movement is buoyant, light and airy. The account of this movement is very fine indeed. The same clarity of texture pervades the second movement while the brief third movement is invested with abundant life. The finale, again taken attacca, is lithe yet strongly projected at times when Sibelius requires it. The Sixth is still an underappreciated work but this splendid reading makes the best possible case for it.

In the Seventh the wonderful passage of string polyphony a few minutes in is played very eloquently; Lintu builds this episode very impressively. The structural originality, concision and majesty of this amazing score are all done full justice by Lintu and his colleagues. In this performance I felt that the sweep and logic of the music were conveyed compellingly from first bar to last. It’s clear the Lintu is relishing the passages of quick music, which his orchestra play deftly, but in the expansive episodes which predominate he seems to me to conduct with greater intensity that anywhere else in the cycle.

I’ve searched diligently through the documentation, which is otherwise comprehensive, but I can’t find any information about when these performances took place. They’re clearly recent, though; perhaps they were given earlier in 2015 as part of the anniversary celebrations.

I said at the start that the producers of this set have gone to town on the presentation. The performance of each symphony is preceded by a short film in which Hannu Lintu introduces the symphony. These films consist of a mixture of contemporary and archive footage, which is well edited together. These introductions are also combined into a film lasting about an hour which can be viewed on the fourth DVD after the Seventh Symphony. After the Lintu introduction each symphony is also preceded by a conversation between him and the composer Osmo Tapio Räihälä in which the main themes of the symphony are discussed and illustrated. All this is very valuable and interesting though it will be noted that in several cases the introductory material is nearly as long as the symphony itself – and longer in the case of the Seventh.

I’m afraid I can’t be anywhere near as enthusiastic about the eight short films on the fifth DVD which have the collective title ‘Sort of Sibelius!’ These address not the music but, rather, different aspects of the composer’s life, such as ‘Appearance and Personality’. Money and Pleasures’ and ‘Aino and Janne’. There are some useful bits of commentary in these films by a variety of contributors including the composer Kaija Saariaho (who is described on the caption every time her name appears as “The Sibelius of our times”.) Unfortunately, these comments are surrounded by “arty” inserts featuring actors taking the roles of Sibelius and others. Frankly, I found these an irritant and for this reason I can’t see myself ever watching the films in the future. Others may appreciate the films more but without them the set could have been accommodated on four DVDs – and at a cheaper price. The set also comes with a very well-produced hard-back book containing many illustrations and notes in English, French and German.

What of the sound and vision? The set is also available in Blu-Ray format but I was sent the DVDs to review. I played the DVDs through my Blu-Ray player and to be quite honest I doubt I would have got better visual results if I’d been watching a Blu-Ray. The picture quality is truly excellent, the images sharp and clear. Furthermore, the camerawork is intelligent and relevant throughout all the symphonies. I don’t have my video equipment connected to my hi-fi system so I heard these performances through my television with a Bose sound base. I got very good results; the bass is firm and the orchestral sound comes over very well. If you have your equipment configured for hi-fi then I’m sure you’ll get even better results.

Leaving aside the annoyingly quirky aspects of the documentary films this is a first class set and a worthy tribute from Finland to the nation’s greatest composer. I thought the performances were top class and the production values of the set are worthy not only of these fine performances but of these great symphonies.

John Quinn
 


 

 




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