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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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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 eClassical.com
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 (Decca). 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 strengths.

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 comparisons.

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 write them.

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.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

 

 




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