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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

One of the most staggeringly original composers that there is.”
(Sir Simon Rattle on Sibelius)

This latest release from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings is being issued to mark the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius that falls in 2015. Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded this set of live recordings in the Philharmonie, Berlin during the 2014/15 season.

This hardcover Sibelius Edition is high-end merchandise and comprises a number of elements:
a) Symphonies Nos. 1-7 on 4 Audio CDs.
b) Symphonies Nos. 1-7 on a single Pure Audio Blu-ray disc in 24-bit/96kHz in uncompressed, original studio master audio in either stereo or surround sound. Included as a bonus is a video interview ‘Lost in the Forest of Fear: Sir Simon Rattle talks about Jean Sibelius’ with interviewer Vesa Sirén lasting 58 minutes.
c) Live concert performances of Symphonies Nos. 1-7 on a single Video Blu-ray Disc in High Definition. Incorporated is a bonus video: ‘The Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall’.
d) A personal code to download high resolution studio master audio files of the entire collection (24-bit/192 kHz). Free of charge to owners of the hardcover edition.
e) A 7-day voucher for the Digital Concert Hall (which is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s video streaming service).
f) The 64 page integral booklet in German and English contains information on each symphony together with two helpful essays:
 i) ‘Harmony and Dissonance: The World of Jean Sibelius’ by musicologist and biographer Glenda Dawn Goss.
 ii) ‘Jean Sibelius and the 20th century’ by musicologist and biographer Tomi Mäkelä.
g) With the dimensions 24.5 x 15.5 x 3.2 cm and weighing 600g this hardcover Sibelius Edition is a substantially sized box.

The first time the Berliner Philharmoniker performed a Sibelius work was the tone poem En Saga conducted by the composer in 1902 followed by Finlandia and the Symphony No. 2 in 1904 and 1905 respectively. It seems that these Sibelius works were not included in the orchestra’s Subscription series but in its less prestigious ‘Novelties Concerts’ until chief conductor Arthur Nikisch in 1911 included Finlandia as part of the main series of Philharmonic Concerts. Gradually Sibelius works became more frequent in the orchestra's concert programmes under eminent conductors such as Furtwängler, Beecham, Jochum and Krauss who gave a concert to mark the Sibelius’s 75th birthday. After the Second World War Celibidache and Karajan programmed Sibelius works and in recent years Rattle has continued the tradition.

A couple of years ago I looked into why the Berliner Philharmoniker had never performed the Sibelius Symphony No. 3 which seemed a quite remarkable fact. According to the John Hunt catalogue Karajan, so prolific in the studio, had never recorded the symphony with the orchestra but it was hard to believe that the Berliner Philharmoniker had never played the work in its history. Yet this was confirmed in the notes that accompany this own label release stating that the complete cycle of the Sibelius symphonies was being performed for the first time in 2010 by the Berliner Philharmoniker with the Symphony No. 3 never having been played before by the orchestra. Only a few days after the Philharmonie, Berlin concerts that form the basis for the present set Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker on 10/12 February 2015 were resident at the Barbican and Southbank Centre, London and performed a complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies. Rattle’s deep admiration for Sibelius is demonstrated by his 1980s cycle of the complete symphonies with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on EMI Classics.

Composed in 1898-99 the thirty-three year old Sibelius himself introduced his Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 in 1899 at Helsinki. Conducted by Karl Muck it was twenty-one years later before the Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the E minor score. For its performance at the Paris World Fair in 1900 the symphony was promoted in a booklet by music writer Karl Flodin as “having the cachet of Finnish nature and national character.” Conductor Osmo Vänskä believes “the music contains the whole wildness and rage of the man.” One notices how Rattle’s pauses feel particularly lengthy and affect the overall flow, a practice that is fairly consistent throughout the set. The big tune in the opening movement does remind me of the stylistic and emotional outpourings of Tchaikovsky - an influence that has often been remarked upon. Rattle’s approach feels considered, with robust passages and weighty rhythms that are especially noticeable in the mercurial temperament of the forceful Scherzo. Of the competing recordings of the First Symphony the 1976 account from Sir Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Decca is hard to match with a captivating performance that draws the listener closely in.

It was Sibelius who conducted the première of his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 in Helsinki to great acclaim with repeat concerts quickly arranged. Written in 1900/02 and frequently defined as a ‘Nationalist’ symphony the valiant score became a cornerstone of the Finnish struggle against Russian domination. Flodin described the score as “a definitive masterpiece.” It was nearly three years before the Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the D major score which was under the composer’s own baton. Both in the opening movement and the heroic finale Rattle ebulliently presents the glorious main theme and furnishes an irresistible squally feel to the Scherzo. In the Second Symphony I remain a passionate advocate for both the well focused 1986 account from Paavo Berglund and Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on EMI Classics and the penetrating live 2012 account from the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder on the Hallé own label.

Rather a Cinderella work the three movement Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 composed in 1904/07 is surely the least played of the cycle. With the première originally promised to the Royal Philharmonic Society, London its first performance was actually given in 1907 at Helsinki with the composer on the podium. Astonishingly it was over a hundred years before the Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the C major symphony which was in 2010 under Simon Rattle. With the composer adopting a more classical approach the symphony uses comparatively economical orchestral textures and musicologist Michael Steinberg made reference to the Haydn influences. Compelling in the Third Symphony is the tension and energy that Rattle produces in the opening movement Allegro moderato and the prevailing mood of the Scherzo is seriously agitated. In the Finale the much commented upon quasi-religious hymn theme feels curiously subdued. Recorded in 1969 the often maligned Third Symphony is given a convincingly focused reading by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli on EMI Classics (re-issued on Warner).

Written in 1909/11 a delighted Sibelius remarked about his Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 “I am pleased that I did it, for even today I cannot find a single note in it that I could remove, nor can I find anything to add. This gives me strength and satisfaction.” Sibelius was finding this period in his life very challenging and Vänskä has stated how one can hear the “anguish” in the writing. With liberal use of chromaticism and dissonance this is one of Sibelius’s most progressive scores which I have seen described as a key work in twentieth-century music. It was Sibelius who conducted the first performance of the A minor score given in 1911 at Helsinki with the first performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker following almost five years later under Oskar Fried’s direction. In the opening movement of the work Rattle imbues a cold austerity and mystery and he successfully creates a picture of bleak and barren landscapes in the deeply carved third movement tempo largo. Eminently satisfying is the responsive account of the uncompromising Fourth Symphony from Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra recorded in 1999 on BIS.

One of the most popular in Sibelius’s symphony cycle his Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 was composed in 1914/15. Originally the score had four movements and in this form it was first performed in 1915 at Helsinki to significant acclaim with the composer conducting on his fiftieth birthday. Sibelius conducted a second version of the score, now in three movements, the next year at Turku and following still more revision gave the final version at 1919 in Helsinki. Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste holds the view that the symphony “is in a way more conservative, but this concerns only its harmonies, which are simpler after the modern complexity of the fourth symphony.” It wasn’t too long before the Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the heroic E flat major score in 1921 with Ferruccio Busoni taking the rostrum. It is remarkable how Rattle in the Andante creates a palpable tension with bright shafts of light breaking through the grey. The ‘Swan’ theme on the horns is magnificent with playing from the Berliners that is highly confident, rugged and powerful. In the imposing Fifth Symphony I have great regard for the 1980 Decca account from Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia for its concentrated playing of distinction.

Along with the Symphony No. 3 in the Sibelius symphonic cycle the Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 is one of the least performed. Written in 1914/23, rather than employing robust dramatic contrasts, this is a predominantly lyrical score. Erkki Salmenhaara expressed the view that “Many people have considered it the most masterly achievement of Sibelius's symphonic art. The fourth symphony is in a way tied to the expressionistic aspirations of its era. The sixth symphony is timeless.” Sibelius introduced the D minor score in 1923 at his favoured Helsinki but it was fifteen years before it was first played by the Berliner Philharmoniker when Herbert von Karajan took the baton in 1938, this was sixteen years before Karajan became the orchestra’s chief conductor. In the first movement Rattle evokes a picturesque countryside scene with an overall mood that is bright, colourful and upbeat. Under Rattle’s subtle control the Allegretto moderato feels like a nocturne, distinctly dreamy in character, rather elegant too with a wonderful glowing texture in the strings. Making quite an impact in the Sixth Symphony using all of his particular understanding of Sibelius is Sir Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded in 1976 on Philips.

Cast in a single movement the dramatic Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 is his shortest symphony in duration. Originally titled the Symphonic Fantasy Sibelius wrote the work in 1918/24 but only after its publication in 1925 did the composer describe the score as a symphony. Vänskä explained that “The seventh forms a pair with the sixth. But it is not autobiographical. The ego is left behind, and things are seen from the point of view of humanity. The composer turns his eye away from himself towards higher powers. Number seven is sacred music.” Sibelius himself conducted the well received première of the C major score in 1924 in Stockholm; the only symphony not introduced in Helsinki. Eleven years later in 1935 principal conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in its first performance of the score. Rattle and his players assign convincing concentration to the drama of the Seventh Symphony and this is especially noticeable in the intensity of the opening movement Adagio with its chorale nature. When the brass join the strings at point 5.16 the effect is quite stunning. Noteworthy in the second movement Vivacissimo - Adagio is an alarming sense of nervous intensity. In the Seventh Symphony Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra from 1999 excel in providing a reading that is expressive yet resolute. It grips from the first bar to the last. This can be heard on Bis.

It comes as no surprise that this most beautifully played cycle by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle overflows with humanity. Yet compared to the best of the competition the performances feel intensely rehearsed in a short space of time and wrapped in a rigid structural integrity. There is no real awareness of living with these works for any length of time. That valuable element of spontaneity is essentially absent as is often the icy chill and sensation of awe. Nevertheless these are expansive live performances that have a consistency of sound being cool, clear and well balanced. On the Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc, Sir Simon Rattle’s interview, talking about Jean Sibelius ‘Lost in the Forest of Fear’ with Vesa Sirén, although interesting contains little new and is perhaps a touch overlong. The Live Concert Videos of Symphonies Nos 1-7 on the High Definition Video Blu-ray Disc have been directed impressively employing cameras actively, rarely allowing things to become monotonous or tiring. On a few occasions the cameras miss a player giving a crucial solo. A choice of sound options has been provided on both the Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc and the HD Video Blu-ray Disc: Stereo [2.0 PCM Stereo 24-bit/48 kHz] and Surround Sound [5.0 DTS-HD MA 24-bit/48 kHz].

Purchasers of this lavishly presented Berliner Philharmoniker Sibelius Edition conducted by Rattle will surely relish the careful preparation, highly polished and expansive performances together with excellent sound but the competition remains fierce. Much as I admire Rattle my enthusiasm has not been dimmed for the outstanding cycles from Sir Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded in 1976/75 on Decca and Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra recorded in 1996/97 on BIS; especially the label’s 15 CD box set The Essential Sibelius that contains the lion’s share of the composer’s major works.

Michael Cookson

Full Content Details

The Berliner Philharmoniker Sibelius Edition conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
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 No’s 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
Bonus Video
‘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 No’s 1-7 in High Definition
Picture: Full HD 1080/60i - 16.9
Sound:
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: 5.06mins
Integral Booklet
64 pages - Essays in German, English
Personal Download-Code
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
Hardcover Edition
24.5 x 15.5 x 3.2 cm: 600g
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR 150071 [4 CDs + 1 Pure Audio Blu-Ray Disc + 1 Video Blu-Ray Disc]

 

 




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