Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Berliner Philharmoniker Sibelius Edition conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
Symphonies Nos. 1-7
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Dec 2014/Feb 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc
Symphonies Nos. 1-7 in Pure Audio 24-bit/96kHz
Including Bonus video interview:
‘Lost in the Forest of Fear: Sir Simon Rattle talks about Jean Sibelius’
1 HD Video Blu-ray Disc
Symphonies Nos. 1-7 in High Definition Video 1080/60i - 16.9
Including Bonus Video: ‘The Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall’
[4 CDs + 1 Pure Audio Blu-Ray Disc + 1 HD Video Blu-Ray Disc]
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR150071
Over the last couple of months I seem to have been immersed in recordings of the symphonies of Sibelius – I can think of far worse fates. I’ve reviewed partial or complete cycles by Leonard Bernstein,
Hannu Lintu and Lorin Maazel and I’ve also caught up with the cycle by Okko Kamu about which Dan Morgan was so enthusiastic – and understandably so. At the same time as all this listening has been going on I’ve been absorbing Sir Simon Rattle’s newly-issued cycle of live performances of the symphonies with the Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO).
I’ve been waiting for this set somewhat impatiently since the beginning of 2015. Then, as part of the extended celebrations in London of his sixtieth birthday, Rattle brought the orchestra to The Barbican to play all the symphonies plus the Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos. I heard the concerts on BBC Radio 3 and was mightily impressed. My Seen and Heard colleague, Claire Seymour, had the good fortune to attend two of the concerts and her comprehensive and enthusiastic review of the concert at which the first two symphonies were played indicated the impact made by the combination of this exciting music, Rattle’s way with it and the superb playing of the BPO. Two days later Claire was just as taken with Rattle’s accounts of the last three symphonies, though it is fair to point out that someone else who heard the performances appended to her review a comment which indicated that not everyone was similarly smitten. Now, some months later I’ve had the chance to experience Rattle’s views of these symphonies at greater leisure through the medium of these recordings and though there are a few points at which I’m not wholly convinced by Rattle’s conception, overall I find my initial admiration is undimmed.
Before considering the performances themselves three general points should be made. The first concerns the presentation of the set. As has been done with previous releases the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label offers lavish presentation. The discs are contained in a sturdy hardback pack – albeit of a size that won’t fit easily onto your shelves alongside other discs. The pack contains notes that are well illustrated. The music is offered on four CDs and on a single BD-A disc. There’s also a Blu-Ray video disc that shows the performances of all the symphonies in the Philharmonie. If this were not enough the set also comes with a code that allows you to download the performances in high resolution audio and I hope we’ll publish a review of the recordings in that format in the near future. The set also includes an extended filmed conversation in which Sir Simon discusses the symphonies with Vesa Sirén. Confusingly, that’s on the BD-A disc as a ‘Bonus Video’. The ‘Bonus Video’ on the video disc itself is simply a promotional film for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall.
The second general point concerns the sound and vision. We conducted a limited sample of the set in its BD-A format during the most recent session in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. Then we were not entirely convinced by the sound, one of my colleagues feeling that the strings sounded rather veiled. I must say that having had the opportunity for further listening on my own equipment I’m now more than happy with the sound – perhaps partly as a result of listening through equipment to which I’m much more accustomed. The CD sound is very impressive: it’s clear, detailed and present. The BD-A sound is even finer. With this format you get even more clarity and presence. At the start of the Fourth Symphony there’s great depth to the BD-A sound and as the orchestra makes the diminuendo the dynamic range achieved by both the players and the engineers is marvellous. Another passage that particularly impressed me in the BD-A version was the end of the Fifth Symphony’s first movement, which is absolutely tremendous. For my reviewing work on this set I particularly used the Blu-Ray video, using a different player, which is just connected to my television though I do have a Bose base unit connected. Even without the boost of full hi-fi the sound came through extremely well. Furthermore the picture quality is excellent and the direction of the cameras has been managed most intelligently.
The third general point concerns the playing of the BPO which is, in a word, fabulous. There’s marvellous sensitivity to dynamics and some of the hushed playing really makes the listener sit up and take notice. At the other extreme there’s all the power you could wish for when Sibelius requires it. All sections of the orchestra play magnificently. There’s sheen and depth of tome throughout the string choir – Rattle has all his violins on his left; the violas are on his right and the cellos are between the violas and second violins while the double bases are placed behind the cellos and violas. The brass and horns offer golden-toned playing while the agility and finesse of the woodwind are outstanding. I noticed how evident it is that the woodwind soloists are attentive to each other – Emanuel Pahud, the principal flute, is especially collegiate in this way. I have the impression that the Finnish orchestras that play for Kamu and Lintu have a somewhat leaner corporate tone which some may prefer for Sibelius. The BPO sound is rather richer but I don’t find it at all inappropriate for this music.
Rattle has “form” as a Sibelian. One of his earliest recordings was the Fifth Symphony with the Philharmonia in 1981 (review). In his Birmingham days he played the symphonies and several other orchestral works quite a lot, setting down a complete symphony cycle for EMI in the 1980s which I bought and still have. It was generally well regarded at the time, as I recall, and I certainly enjoyed the recordings. I’m not sure how much Sibelius he’s done in Berlin but these performances indicate an orchestra scrupulously prepared and thoroughly schooled in their conductor’s vision of the scores. There’s no doubt from the performances that this music means a great deal to him. He also makes that abundantly clear during his conversation with Vesa Sirén, relating the impact his first experiences of the music made on him as a boy; the thrill has never diminished, it seems. He describes Sibelius as “one of the most staggeringly original composers that there is” and that’s what comes across in these performances.
I suspect that the first two symphonies were performed on the same programme – the personnel seem identical and Rattle conducts both works without a score. It’s evident from watching Rattle at work in the First Symphony that he’s relishing the opportunity to bring out the very individual sound world of the Finnish master through the medium of this peerless orchestra. In this performance the first movement’s Allegro energico surges ardently and Rattle brings out the drama in the music. I have one reservation. Sibelius wrote a very dynamic timpani part in this movement but even allowing for this I think the BPO player is over-vehement at times. Neither Bernstein, Kamu, Lintu nor Maazel muzzles their timpanist but in each case the drums are better integrated into the texture yet with no loss of drama. To be fair to the Berlin timpanist, who was presumably producing what was asked of him, he’s not alone: in the recording by the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgĺrds (Chandos CHAN108093), which I heard recently on the radio, the same thing seems to happen. I love the delectable sound made by the muted strings at the start of the second movement and I very much enjoyed this account of the movement as a whole. After a fiery and propulsive journey through the third movement, with a respite during a poised rendition of the trio, Rattle launches into the passionate opening of the finale with only a very slight break. This is a vivid and exciting reading and in the big, romantic tune you can tell that the conductor is willing his string payers to produce a rich, full sound; it’s glorious, especially the second time round. I felt that the very end of the work was somewhat underplayed in the Lintu performance but here Rattle’s tense, exciting build-up – and thrilling timpani roll – shows just what is missing in Lintu’s account. I thought this was a very fine performance.
The Second Symphony opens with a sweeping rendition of the Allegretto but one also in which many felicities of detail demonstrate the sheer class of the performance. The slow movement is richly-hued: I hear lots of browns and reds and golds in the orchestral sounds. The transition from the third movement to the finale is majestically delivered. Once or twice in the quicker episodes of the finale I wondered if Rattle was being just a little too urgent but, on the other hand, what we hear is undeniably red-blooded. In the closing section the gradual build-up of the march-like theme over the running figures in the lower reaches of the orchestra is superbly controlled; hereabouts Rattle displays the aural equivalent of having eyes like a hawk. The closing peroration can only be described as splendid.
Among the information in the documentation is the date on which the BPO first played each of the symphonies. With one exception they’d played them all by 1938, when Karajan led them in the Sixth. And in two or three cases the first BPO performance was given within just a few years of the respective premieres. However, I was astonished to learn that the orchestra did not play the Third Symphony until 2010, when Rattle introduced them to it. (On reflection, it’s the only one of the symphonies that Karajan never conducted, I believe.) Interestingly, for this symphony – though for no other – Rattle reduces the size of the string section quite noticeably. Yet there’s nothing small-scale about the performance which seems to me to be a reading that reminds the BPO’s audiences what they’d been missing all those years. There’s drive and strongly projected energy in the first movement. The melodic material of the second movement is essentially simple but it’s memorably phrased, not least by the orchestra’s outstanding principal clarinet – who is, in truth, magnificent throughout the cycle. The third movement is full of vitality as the first few minutes of fast music are despatched with great élan. Later, though the pulse remains quick the principal theme is broad and here the orchestra produces just the right amount of tonal weight. The Third is still something of an under-appreciated score but when you hear it played like this its true stature is evident.
In many ways the Fourth Symphony is particularly suited to Rattle’s gifts. Its spare textures and economy of means are close to the contemporary music of which he’s such a determined advocate. The dark, brooding opening is perfectly calibrated and introduces a taut and powerful performance. Here the BPO produce sovereign playing, their collective and individual finesse enabling them to deliver the composer’s extraordinary textures wonderfully well. I admired the clean textures in the second movement and in the finale, taken attacca, the super dynamic range and the energy in the playing conspire to produce marvellous results. But it’s the searching, original and uncompromising music of the third movement, Il tempo largo, that is made into the dark heart of the symphony, as it should be. Here Rattle’s famed ear and the fantastically responsive playing of the BPO produce a deeply impressive vision of this bleak, unsettling musical landscape. I admired Rattle’s reading of this symphony very much.
The Fifth, like the first two symphonies, is conducted from memory. At the very start you sense the music is conjuring up wide vistas. As the movement unfolded one feature that registered very strongly with me were the passages of hushed tension, not least the long bassoon solo, here marvellously articulated, over a glacial string accompaniment. Rattle leads a patient performance of cumulative power. The scherzo-like section is delightfully light at first but gradually gathers momentum and ends in a thrilling blaze. The slow movement benefits from the orchestra’s refinement and then there’s scarcely a pause before the finale is upon us. There’s tremendous drive and urgency in the opening pages. The ‘Thor’s Hammer’ section is noble at its first appearance and, unlike Hannu Lintu, Rattle keeps the pulse consistent in this passage, greatly to the music’s advantage. There’s even more majesty when the ‘Thor’s Hammer’ music is heard for the second time round, this time, rightly, at a more expansive speed. The end of the performance is greeted by an enthusiastic ovation and I’m not surprised.
Rattle uses a score to conduct the Sixth. I mention that because there’s a score on his desk for the Seventh also but in fact I think it’s the score of the Sixth and that Rattle directs the last symphony from memory. The sound of the BPO strings in the opening pages of the Sixth can only be described as luminous and when the woodwind join in the musical discourse they match the elegance and eloquence of their string colleagues. The quick music in this movement is light-footed and airy, ideal for giving voice to Sibelius’s inspiration. The second movement, concise and economical, is superbly played while the deftness with which the third movement is delivered is memorable. When the finale is reached we are treated to some ravishing playing in the opening pages. Thereafter the playing of the fast music is simply marvellous; the rhythms are tightly sprung and the music grows in excitement. Sibelius relaxes somewhat in the last few minutes, however, and here Rattle and his players are wonderfully refined and subtly eloquent.
In these performances – and in the London ones, too – Rattle sprang something of a surprise by playing the last two symphonies as an uninterrupted sequence with only a few seconds gap between the end of the Sixth and the start of the Seventh. Apparently this was an idea proposed to him by Paavo Berglund who was something of a Sibelius mentor to Rattle. I suspect that Rattle has only taken to performing the works like this in recent years: I saw him perform the last three symphonies in a single concert during his Birmingham days and, because it’s so unusual. I’m sure I would have remembered had he adopted that approach then. You won’t be aware of this interpretative gesture if you’re just listening in an audio format but it’s clear when you watch the performances. I wasn’t convinced by the joining together of the two very different works when Rattle did it in London and I’m still unconvinced.
However, what I am convinced by is Rattle’s reading of the Seventh. He leads a very intense performance and, though it scarcely needs saying by now, the BPO’s playing is simply fabulous. The celebrated trombone solos that act as cornerstones of the structure are delivered in a way that can only be described as magisterial. The swift passages are light and mobile but in the slower passages Rattle achieves genuine, unforced grandeur, especially in the passage where the trombone solo appears for the third and final time. From that point until the end of the symphony the music-making is extraordinarily impressive. It’s a tremendous performance of this exceptional symphony and the performance is fully deserving of the ovation it receives.
Not everyone admires Sir Simon Rattle’s conducting; he’s sometimes accused of micro-managing scores at the expense of the big picture. I prefer to think of his “micro-management” as attention to detail and having seen him conduct many times over the years as well as hearing many recordings I don’t recall many instances when I did not feel that the big picture was being laid out in front of me. Recently I was in conversation with a distinguished singer, now retired, who performed over 100 concerts with Rattle and made several recordings with him and I was pleased to find that he agreed with me completely. I have the same impression with these performances. They have been scrupulously prepared, with every detail and every nuance carefully considered. In particular it’s evident that the orchestra has been rehearsed meticulously so that we hear a settled and thoughtful account of each symphony. But if that sounds soulless and calculated such is not the case. There’s passion, colour, excitement and commitment in these performances. Particularly in the Fourth Symphony and the last two I also have a sense of exploration.
In short, these are very fine performances indeed. This set is a lavish and distinguished tribute to Sibelius in his 150th anniversary year.
Previous review: Michael Cookson
Full Content Details
CD 1 [80.50]
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1898/99) [37.39]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1900/02) [43.12]
CD 2 [65.08]
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1904/07) [28.17]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1909/11) [36.50]
CD 3 [30.32]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1914/15, rev 1919) [30.32]
CD 4 [51.01]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1914/23) [29.13]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1918/24) [21.48]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany: 18-20 December 2014 (Symphony 5); 28 January- 6 February 2015 (Symphonies 1-4); 7-9 February 2015 (Symphonies 5-7)
Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc
Symphonies Nos. 1-7 in Pure Audio 24-bit/96 kHz
Stereo: [2.0 PCM Stereo 24-bit/48 kHz]
Surround Sound: [5.0 DTS-HD MA 24-bit/48 kHz]
Running time: 227 min
Lost in the Forest of Fear: Sir Simon Rattle talks about Jean Sibelius with interviewer Vesa Sirén
Running time: 54.21mins
HD Video Blu-ray Disc
Live Concert Videos of Symphonies Nos. 1-7 in High Definition
Picture: Full HD 1080/60i - 16.9
Stereo: [2.0 PCM Stereo 16-bit/48 kHz]
Surround sound: [5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio 16 bit/48 kHz]
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)
Running time: 297 mins
Bonus Video: The Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall
Running time: 5.06 mins
64 pages - Essays in German, English
For high resolution audio files of the entire album (24-bit/192 kHz)
Digital Concert Hall
7 Day Ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker's
virtual concert hall
24.5 x 15.5 x 3.2 cm: 600g