Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1898-1899, rev. 1900) [38:24]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901-1902) [44:56]
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1904-1907) [29:29]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1908-1911) [38:07]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1914-1915, rev. 1916 and 1919) [34:42]
Symphony No. 6 (in D minor), Op. 104 (1922-1923) [29:06]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1923-1924) [22:40]
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Okko Kamu
rec. 2012/14, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2076 SACD [3 CDs: 240:13]
This new set promises to be one of the highlights
of this anniversary year. That it duplicates Osmo
Vänskä’s epic traversal – arguably the finest in the
catalogue – matters not a jot, for Kamu and the Lahti SO are just
as potent a combination in these great works. Theirs isn’t the
only complete set issued to coincide with Sibelius's 150th birthday;
we’ve already heard from John Storgårds and the BBC Phil (Chandos)
and there's a box from Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
on the orchestra's own label. Thomas Søndergård and the
BBCNOW have just begun their cycle (Linn)
and Vänskä’s Minnesota one will be completed in due course (BIS).
The classic Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel sets have just been reissued
as well (Sony and Decca respectively).
Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 has the mix of grace
and granite one associates with this composer. Kamu captures both these
elements in the opening movement, which also has tremendous thrust and
tension. The brass snarl with the best of them and those skittish string
figures are superbly articulated. The pin-sharp recording is crisp without
being fierce, and there’s plenty of depth and detail. In short,
a perfect balance for music that’s packed with so much colour
and incident. Oh, and what a lovely, singing line at the start of the
Andante; as for the return of that gentle, levitating theme
at the end of that movement it’s simply breathtaking.
Kamu follows that with a brisk but firmly contoured Scherzo
that highlights the fine playing in all sections of the orchestra. That
Sibelian impassiveness is never allowed to dominate here or in the finale,
both of which are well shaped and powerfully projected. The promotional
videos for this set show Kamu to be utterly charming, yet he’s
unflinching when he needs to be. This conductor also has a fine grasp
of the work’s architecture; he terraces the music with uncommon
skill and the orchestra respond with playing of startling unanimity
and passion. Those heaving, Tchaikovskian passages are splendid, and
the closing pages are as emphatic as one could wish.
I don’t want to spend too much time comparing Kamu’s Sibelius
with Vänskä’s, but their respective approaches to this symphony
are a pretty good indicator of their way with the others. Vänskä’s
account is more yielding – parts of the Andante are very
beautiful indeed – but there’s animation and amplitude aplenty.
Kamu’s performance and recording are more analytical; indeed,
he brings to mind Vesalius’s intricate anatomical drawings, the
skin flayed to reveal the sinew and bones beneath. In spite of his forensic
style Kamu still manages to capture the lyrical, open-hearted aspects
of the piece. He’s helped in no small measure by the selfless
playing of this terrific band.
This download follows the layout of the discs, so the symphonies aren’t
presented chronologically. I prefer to review them in strict order,
not least because that allows one to best appreciate the evolution and
refinements of Sibelius’s musical thinking. I got to know
Symphony No. 2 via Sir Colin Davis and the LSO on RCA,
a recording that I still cherish to this day. Kamu is more volatile
in the Allegro, and he brings out the interplay of instruments
more tellingly than most. Once again I had to admire the Lahti woodwinds
in particular, as they are always so clean and characterful.
Rather more than Davis – who recorded these symphonies several
times, most recently for LSO Live – Kamu makes the Second seem
more angular, more forward-looking. He also finds the tempo giusto,
which allows Sibelius’s phrases their full shape and weight; in
turn that helps the music move and mesh more naturally. The perfectly
articulated pizzicati in the restless Andante are
a joy to hear and those big brass massifs are as imposing as
ever. What is so remarkable about Kamu’s Sibelius thus far is
that it has a constant frisson, an air of risk-taking, that
one rarely encounters outside the concert hall.
Even more impressive is the fact that Kamu reminds us of the symphony’s
themes, and adaptations thereof, in a ways that few rivals do. Indeed,
that feeling of (re)discovery, of seeing how the pieces of this jigsaw
actually fit together, is hugely rewarding. As for the St-Vitus-like
Vivacissimo its general jitter is enclosed in parentheses of
pure, unexpected loveliness. I marvelled at the limpid woodwinds, resounding
brass and ardent strings in the finale, all framed in a reading of unusual
omniscience and strength. Goodness, this is ur-Sibelius, the
likes of which I’ve not heard before. Sound engineer Andreas Ruge
has done a sterling job with this one; I'd even go so far as to say
it's the best recording in the set.
For some reason Sibelius’s endlessly engaging Symphony
No. 3 isn’t programmed or recorded as often as its companions.
I suppose it’s one of those slightly awkward ‘bridging’
works that comes between two distinct compositional periods. All too
often these are deemed less worthy or interesting. That's not so here,
as Kamu makes such a strong and unequivocal case for the piece. The
brass-taunting Allegro is magnificent, and in Kamu’s
hands the Andantino has a joy, an air of contentment, that
would lighten even the heaviest of hearts. There’s also a winning
transparency to the writing, both here and in the playful, rather Puckish
finale; Kamu makes the most of that as well.
As a callow youth I wore out a cassette of Symphony No. 4,
in an indelibly sonorous performance by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia
I’ve no idea how I’d feel about that recording now, but
it certainly persuaded me that this is one of Sibelius’s greatest
creations. Under Kamu the opening movement is wonderfully dark and equivocal
– what gorgeous string playing – and it's persuasively paced
as well. More than that, it’s as if the music's newly forged,
its bright mettle untarnished by age or imperfections. The clarity and
sheer fidelity of this fine recording reinforces that impression. All
credit to Fabian Frank, the engineer on this and symphonies 1, 3 and
5 to 7.
There are moments of almost Wagnerian heft and nobility in Kamu’s
performance of the Fourth, yet he has a lightness of touch in the Allegro
molto that’s most attractive. Even the movement’s denser
thickets can’t impede this conductor’s progress; he’s
always sure of his destination, and how to get there, whether it’s
in the delicately wrought Largo or that strange Allegro.
The corollary of all this is that neither energy nor inspiration are
in short supply; in particular Kamu makes us keenly aware that Sibelius
is moving on, and that he’s on the cusp of new and greater things.
Indeed, that compelling sense of context is one of this set's greatest
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to review
a DVD of Leonard Bernstein and the London Symphony in a performance
of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5. Lenny’s flair
for the dramatic, coupled with the extra adrenaline that tends to flows
during a live concert, produced an epic account of this landmark piece.
Powerful but not overpowering, grand but not grandiose, that’s
the way the Fifth should go. And that’s just the way it does with
Kamu, who also manages to eke out more colour and nuance than most.
True, he’s not quite as edgy as Bernstein in the Tempo molto
moderato, but he’s far more revealing in other ways; once
again it's about the sinew and the bones.
It’s not often that complete sets are as musically consistent
or as revelatory as this one; there’s no fall-off in the quality
of the playing or sound either. Kamu’s timps are especially well
caught in this first tranche of this Fifth, as are the pulsing strings
and woodwind interactions of the Andante that follows. Time
and again I found myself hearing this music as if for the first time;
indeed, I can’t recall this movement essayed with such clarity
and poise. Sibelius's grander orchestral works so often evoke craggy
outcrops and imposing peaks, yet Kamu intimates - in his disarming way
- that there's much to be found in the music's verdant pastures too.
I always thrill to that distinctive Sibelian ‘blend’, that
mix of the rough and the smooth, the gruff and the graceful, and Kamu
certainly knows how to get it. Musically he doesn't have it all his
own way in the Fifth. For instance the great see-sawing theme in the
Allegro molto is a little under-characterised compared with
Bernstein, but then Kamu prefers stoicism to outright despair. Both
approaches seem to work well enough, with Kamu less extreme in just
about every aspect of the symphony’s finale. Make no mistake,
this is a direct and very moving performance, whose final notes –
those blunt, existential interrogatives – are as challenging as
ever. Incidentally, it's worth noting that Vänskä’s set also includes
the first version of the Fifth, which makes for some very interesting
The disembodied strings that introduce Symphony No. 6
signal a new economy of style, a simplicity of utterance, that plays
to Kamu’s penchant for plain-speaking. That said, there are parts
of Sibelius's musical persona that are simply irrepressible; for instance
there's still a deep-seated lyricism here, to which Kamu responds at
every turn. As for the second movement, a fleet-footed, pared-down Allegretto
molto, it's like nothing we’ve heard thus far. Kamu makes
the most of Sibelius’s terse rhythms here and gives a robust account
of the Poco vivace. Only in the brisk, clarifying finale do
we hear vestiges of the old, more expansive Sibelius. As expected, this
is a very taut and convincing performance, well played and recorded.
I described Thomas Søndergård’s recent recording
of the single-movement Symphony No. 7 as ‘vital
and strongly characterised’. That also applies to Kamu’s
account, which is much better played. The Seventh is an odd and sometimes
impenetrable piece, but Kamu finds the narrative thread at once, and
it remains unstretched and unbroken to the very end. That's a pretty
good description of Kamu's Sibelius as a whole; it's so utterly connected.
As final symphonies go this is not so much a summation as a tantalising
'what if'; we can only wonder what kind of symphonies
Sibelius might have given us over the next 33 years, had he chosen to
Totting-up time. I'm still very attached to Vänskä’s
set, not least for its warmly expressiver performances and recording.
Kamu's is leaner and more explicit, and that has its own rewards. Production
values in both boxes are high, prices are competitive and the liner-notes
are excellent. That's why I won't recommend one cycle over the other;
you simply must have both.
Kamu’s distinguished Sibelius joins Vänskä’s
at the top of the tree; formidable engineering, too.