Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) The Seven Symphonies
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Okko Kamu
rec. 2012-14, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland BIS-2076 [3 SACDs: 77:21 + 80:26 + 82:26]
Jean Sibelius was born 150 years ago, reason enough to issue an all-new set of his seven symphonies from a Finnish orchestra and conductor. It is also the seventieth birthday year of Okko Kamu, whose international career began with victory in the 1969 Karajan conducting competition. He then effectively completed the DG Sibelius series (of which Karajan had set down numbers 4-7) by recording numbers 1, 2 and an especially admired number 3. That shared cycle (called the “Kamu-jan” cycle in my house) is still available at budget price (review).
Seven other Finnish Sibelians have enjoyed far greater prominence than Kamu on disc since then, with cycles from Berglund (thrice: Bournemouth EMI; Helsinki EMI; Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Finlandia), Saraste (twice: Finlandia; RCA-BMG), Segerstam (twice: Chandos then Brilliant Classics; also Ondine), Oramo, Vänskä, Sakari and Storgårds (Chandos), even before we widen the Baltic brigade to include the Estonian Neeme Järvi (Bis) and the Swede Herbert Blomstedt (Decca). Vänskä’s cycle was with this same Lahti orchestra, which he led from 1988 to 2008. Saraste then took over until Kamu was appointed Principal Conductor in 2011 (review). That appointment ends soon, and BIS were keen for him to conduct this cycle while still in charge. They also wished to add an SACD cycle to their catalogue, and one recorded in the orchestra’s own acoustically remarkable Sibelius Hall, not available for Vänskä’s 1990’s BIS cycle as it opened only in 2000. Lahti’s Sibelius Hall has often been independently rated one of the best in the world.
So a lot of propitious elements come together with this issue. Does it deliver? The short answer is an emphatic “yes”. September 2015 saw the regular three-day Sibelius Festival in Lahti expanded to a week to encompass all the symphonies and other major orchestral works in honour of the anniversary year. All those Finnish conductors listed above (except Paavo Berglund, who died in 2012, and Petri Sakari) were involved, with Kamu himself leading two concerts, which included symphonies 2, 6 and 7. His performances were certainly of the calibre of the illustrious Segerstam or his younger successors, and it is a mystery why we have waited quite so long for a complete cycle from Okko Kamu. That said, it has been worth it, for his decades of experience with this music, and more recently with the orchestra and the venue, reap rich rewards. These discs were formally launched at the Festival and flew off the shelves. The UK release date is 30 October and the three discs will be at a special price.
The Lahti orchestra would not I imagine appear on many of those rather pointless shortlists of “best orchestras in the world”, but they are a very fine Sibelius orchestra, as we know from the Vänskä years. There is no sense of anyone having to teach them this music, as Rattle recently said he had to teach it to the Berlin Philharmonic. They sound completely idiomatic, whether in the poetic woodwind flourishes, potent brass interventions, or the many intense string tremolos. The playing never lets the composer down. They are not a large band – they are municipal salaried workers after all, funded by Lahti’s local government, with a string section founded on just five double basses. Hence the all-important woodwind passages are never covered by the strings, even in the fullest scoring. In their own hall, with its rich acoustic and a resonance that can be varied for different sizes of ensemble, they achieve plenty of impact and can deliver the big moments of the first two symphonies perfectly well.
The first three symphonies are very similar to Kamu’s earlier interpretations, with largely unchanged timings, and each BIS movement is within about 20 seconds of its DG predecessor. Only the Second Symphony is much different, with the andante and the finale now being a minute shorter. Those movements are normally about a quarter of an hour each anyway, so proportionally it is not a big shift.
The First Symphony sets the tone for the whole set. At once the ear notices the tactile presence of the solo clarinet, and the clarity of the timpani recording, its pp rising to mf and falling back to pp precisely registered by the player and the engineers. As at least three MusicWeb International reviewers saw at the Lahti Festival, Kamu not only has the score open in front of him, he quite often consults it. This might seem odd in music he knows backwards, except that the effect is a sense of the music liberated fresh from the page, not revisited from old habits. He is never prosaic – there is a radiant soaring climax to the finale of number one, with a very subtle broadening in response to the poco a poco meno andante marking, and the feeling affetuoso indeed, just as the strings are marked.
The Second Symphony is cut from the same cloth, with the score’s markings scrupulously observed, but the end result is far from literal. The first movement’s Beethovenian strength is underlined by the cumulative power Kamu finds in its successive episodes. In the slow movement when the first subject returns a little before seven minutes in, it is shared most evocatively between a solo trumpet and the flute in is lowest register – a Mahlerian scoring but here an exchange overheard deep in the northern forest, such is the archaic feeling with which it is imbued by Kamu and his players. The finale’s famous coda is not driven on with quite the barnstorming power of a Beecham or a Barbirolli, but it is very effective nonetheless, and properly in scale with what has gone before. The trumpet-capped close could still have you cheering at your loudspeakers. In both the early symphonies you will on occasion miss the effect a sumptuous body of strings can produce - try the start of the Second Symphony with Järvi in Gothenburg on DG for comparison. Kamu does not see these two works as in any sense mere preludes to what many have considered the greater works to come, but as fully realised masterpieces that only Sibelius could have written. If the ensuing compositions are tauter and more integrated still, that means losses as well as gains – though I say this as the only person I know who would rather hear Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets more than his later ones.
Not that there are no gains. The Third Symphony might not be as expansive as its predecessors, but in Kamu’s hands it is no less compelling, growing organically almost throughout from its opening material. His first movement is swifter than many. Robert Kajanus, Sibelius’s friend and chosen interpreter on disc took 29:54 over the work in his pioneering 1932 LSO account (Naxos) and Kamu takes 29:29, with a similar implacable momentum in the outer movements. The notorious marking for the middle movement, Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto (‘a little walking pace, with motion, and sort of a little lively’?) has led to the wide variations in speeds chosen by conductors. Here Kamu gives a bit more weight to that ‘quasi allegretto’ phrase and really keeps things flowing (10:05 against Kajanus’s 11:14), with plenty of attention to nuance in the exquisitely evolving melody. In the first part of the finale the woodwind detail is everywhere delightful, with the recording giving presence to the rasp of the stopped horns. Kamu observes the gradualism in the markings - Sibelius is fond of transitioning poco a poco, ‘little by little’ - so that things evolve naturally, as is essential in this music. One crux of this finale is the transition from that scherzo-like fragmentary first part to the emergence of the march-like theme that will dominate until the close of the work. This is perfectly stage-managed by Kamu, who drives on, piu energico as marked, to a most satisfying end.
The Fourth Symphony offers us a bleak vision, and Kamu does not soften its mainly comfortless message. It has great intensity of feeling, as it must always have to come off well. The runic chanting of the opening cello confides a great sorrow, and each of the many woodwind solos makes its mark. The first movement’s few, hard-achieved climaxes, are very telling and the second movement’s initially optimistic-sounding Allegro molto vivace cannot dispel the brooding atmosphere. The tremendous Adagio climbs to its sunless peak, and the lively elements of the finale, glockenspiel and all, eventually succumb to the prevailing mood of desolate resignation. “There is absolutely nothing of the circus about it” said Sibelius of his Fourth, but it still has to be performed as if on a tightrope, teetering on the brink, as it is here. This might even be the performance of the set, as for some Sibelians the work is the greatest of the symphonies.
The Fifth Symphony is one of the most popular of all, and the Lahti players do full justice to its poetic opening, as horns and oboes call us to begin one of the great symphonic journeys. The glorious transition in the 12/8 first movement as we approach the switch to a dancing 3/4, technically a modulation from E flat to B major but the bit we all think of as the moment the sun bursts through the clouds, is very well judged, though the trumpets might have celebrated a little more joyously perhaps. It took me a few hearings to appreciate what Kamu is doing in this work, since he never overplays the heroism of such moments. His long-term view and attention to detail results by the end in a very satisfying account, if not quite one to replace classic accounts from Karajan or Barbirolli. Kamu’s speeds are the modern norm, with an overall timing of 34:42. I don’t know a modern version which gets it under the half hour as Kajanus did, but Saraste’s two versions get close (review), as does Vänskä both in Lahti (31:20) and Minnesota (30:50).
The Lahti orchestra begins the Sixth Symphony as beguilingly as one could wish, its opening polyphonic web beautifully clear as a consequence of the lean string sound and the recording quality. This is one of those movements which at times gets close to chamber music, with clucking woodwinds and glints of harp tone (an instrument absent since the First Symphony) – here it is given a quasi-impressionistic feel, eloquent but evanescent. This feeling persists through the ensuing Allegretto moderato, while the 6/8 scherzo explores the Sibelian device of switching between thrice two and twice three, as the flute player early on makes quite clear. This movement has the only loud ending in the symphony and Kamu certainly encourages his braying horns and bellowing brass, as he does again during the finale. He ends the work serenely enough, but it is still a troubled close to a symphony. Vänskä, in a valuable published interview on Sibelius interpretation (The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, Ed. D. Grimley, 2004, pp.), said “I can never do a ritenuto at the end of the Sixth Symphony. It’s not notated, but a lot of people do it…” Kamu is almost as blunt at the end as Vänskä, though without sounding doctrinaire or inexpressive.
Symphony No.7 is another fully idiomatic and persuasive performance. In that same Vänskä interview we learn “Sibelius said to Jussi Jalas” (his conductor son-in-law) “that the tempo changes indicated in his scores should be so slight that people are hardly aware of them”, and so it is with Kamu here. So we hear that a new tempo has been established, but not exactly how and when, just as one can never pinpoint the exact moment when the Nordic winter yields to spring. Thus the four sections of the symphony merge into one vast orchestral soundscape, punctuated by the noble trombone theme (marked sonore), whose first note, that alien D, intrudes so irresistibly upon the swirling C major tonality. Kamu makes this moment and all that follows feel inexorable. However his basic pulse is broader than some, and I confess to a preference for a slightly swifter one. The first recording, by Koussevitsky in 1933 (Naxos) has a timing of 21:16 against Kamu’s 22:40, and that is now common, roughly the Simon Rattle and Colin Davis tempo. There are some swifter ones though, including Järvi’s 20:44 (BIS 1985), the recent Søndergård’s 20:33 (Linn 2015), the record-holding Beecham’s 19:19 in 1942, and his modern successor Saraste’s 19:38 (Finlandia 1995). While a ten per cent difference in overall timing is not negligible in a short work, it is the internal tempo relationships and the transitions between them that matter more. Kamu is very expert in that respect and his Seventh makes a fitting climax to a fine cycle.
Where though to place this among the many recorded cycles of these immortal works? Taking a narrowly sonic view, and only of complete SACD cycles, it is superior in sound to both Ashkenazy in Stockholm for Exton, and – though only just – to Järvi in Gothenburg on DG. For some that DG might even be preferable for the larger orchestral image, but it is hard to find except as (very good) stereo CDs. Vänskä is now completing his second cycle in Minnesota (reviewreview) after that series, and indeed the orchestra, almost came to grief. That will be a powerful SACD competitor, as will Rattle’s live Berlin cycle on the BPO’s own label in blu-ray - due soon. Also the 1960s vintage Decca/VPO under Maazel is about to reappear in a re-mastering to include a blu-ray version.
Of the wider scene, the choice is vast. In addition to the cycles from Nordic conductors listed earlier, there have been Barbirolli and Rattle on EMI, Collins and Ashkenazy on Decca, Bernstein on CBS, Maazel (in Pittsburgh) on Sony, and Colin Davis three times - on Philips, RCA and LSO Live. Almost none of these is negligible, and there is an important historic contribution from Russia, whose relation to Finland was critical when these works were created, represented by Rozhdestvensky and the Moscow Radio SO on Melodiya – late 1960s to early 1970s vintage, vibrato-rich brass and all. So late 2015 will be a time for stocktaking and comparative reassessments among all these riches, and collectors will want to pause and draw breath but when ready to acquire another cycle, don’t forget Kamu. If you are new to these works — then my, you are a patient reader — and want really modern sound and consistently authentic, unidiosyncratic interpretations, this issue is a very good place to start. I got the chance when in Lahti to ask Okko Kamu what he thought of his new recording. “I don’t know” he said “I haven’t heard it.” Well I now have, and it is very good indeed.
Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)
Contents of discs:- CD 1 Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39 (1898–99, rev. 1900)
1. I. Andante, ma non troppo – Allegro energico [10:35]
2. II. Andante (ma non troppo lento) [9:14]
3. III. Scherzo. Allegro [5:32]
4. IV. Finale (Quasi una Fantasia). Andante – Allegro molto [12:42] Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63 (1909–11)
5. I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio [11:16]
6. II. Allegro molto vivace [4:50]
7. III. Il tempo largo [11:46]
8. IV. Allegro [9:51]
CD 2 Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43 (1901–02)
1. I. Allegretto [9:41]
2. II. Tempo Andante, ma rubato [14:26]
3. III. Vivacissimo – attacca [6:11]
4. IV. Finale. Allegro moderato [14:23] Symphony No.5 in E flat major, Op.82
5. I. Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato [15:08]
6. II. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto [9:29]
7. III. Allegro molto – Largamente assai [9:48]
CD 3 Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52 (1904–07)
1. I. Allegro moderato [10:11]
2. II. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto [10:05]
3. III. Moderato – Allegro (ma non tanto) [8:55] Symphony No.6 (in D minor), Op.104 (1922–23)
4. I. Allegro molto moderato [8:51]
5. II. Allegretto moderato [6:43]
6. III. Poco vivace [3:26]
7. IV. Allegro molto [9:45]
8. Symphony No.7 in C major, Op.105 (1923–24) [22:40]