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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony no.3 in C major, op.52 [29:50]
Symphony no.6 in D minor, op.104 [28:58]
Symphony no.7 in C major, op.105 [22:01]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. May/June 2015 at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
BIS BIS2006 SACD [82:00]

Eighty-two minutes and three of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century – not ones for selling us short, are BIS! This CD completes Osmo Vänska’s series of the Sibelius symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, Symphonies 2 and 5 having been issued in 2012, and 1 and 4 in 2014. Both recordings were greeted with lavish praise and enthusiasm for the conducting of Vänskä, the playing of the Minnesota Orchestra and the recording quality from BIS.

I was slightly shocked to look at the timings of these works and see how short they all are; great music like this seems to exist entirely outside the realm of measured minutes and seconds, expanding in the mind Tardis-like. I have always loved the 3rd, a quirky, unpredictable piece, which seems the perfect example of how Sibelius presents us with apparently disparate, unconnected ideas, yet manages to tie them up in a deeply satisfying way by the end of each movement.

Vänskä and his players go for the widest possible palate of colours and dynamics, and the BIS SACD recording is able to render this with stunning clarity (though you may need to twiddle a bit with the control to get exactly the right volume setting!). The great moment of the first movement is when the second theme, so self-effacing at its first appearance, now looms up in the full body of strings, driven on by thumping timpani and motoric woodwind. Bracing and thrilling.

I wasn’t so happy with the second movement, which, for my money, is just too slow in Vänskä’s hands. It’s marked by the composer as Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto; make of that what you will, but the important bit is ‘con moto’, ‘with motion’, presumably in relation to the ‘slowish’ implications of andantino. Sibelius isn’t very clear here, so it is down to a matter of taste. It does feel to me too languid at this tempo, even though as everywhere, Vänskä brings out detail and colour wonderfully well. The return of the lilting main tune is surrounded by distinctively Sibelian growling chords in horns and bassoons, clearer and more stark than I’ve ever heard them.

The finale, another case of gradually assembled fragments, gathers momentum, but lacks something of the drive and exhilaration that the final pages require. A carefully considered rather than inspirational performance.

The Sixth on the other hand is given a reading that is as close to perfection as I can imagine. It has all the ingredients – mystery, playfulness, and those passages of icy purity that give the work its reputation as ‘austere’. But George Osborne is nowhere to be seen or heard in the first movement, which, rather than austerity, gives us sharp characterisation allied to great beauty of tone and phrasing.

The leisurely, but always eventful, unfolding of the following Allegretto moderato is a joy, as is the rhythmic precision of the third, poco vivace. But the greatest revelation is Vänskä’s reading of the finale. His years of study of this amazing music (as well, no doubt, as his Finnish nationality) have given him a very special insight into the character of complex movements like this, and he brings out superbly the various elements: the polite dialogue of strings and woodwind at the beginning; then the woodwind response to the strings’ gentle encouragement to indulge in something a little more energetic; the surprisingly rumbustious music that follows, timpani solos alternating with the rippling harp; and the strangely thoughtful (though not austere!) coda. The Sixth does have an enigmatic quality in common with Symphony no.4, but lacks that work’s intimidating coldness. If the Fourth is Winter, the Sixth is the oncoming Spring; this is a great performance.

Then there’s the Seventh; a mighty statement compressed into just twenty-two minutes. Vänskä’s grasp of the complex structure is total, and he builds the piece inexorably. One could question the very soft playing he calls for near the beginning, where the lower strings start their long climb towards the first major climax; but when that climax arrives, and with it the great trombone theme, the hushed commencement seems justified. The ending is as overwhelming as it should be; the final, poignant appearance of the trombone theme, that curious hint of Valse Macabre (conscious or not!), and the final, hard-won resolution. Everything in its place, another wonderful achievement from this fine partnership.

I could personally wish for a more acerbic sound from the woodwind – reedier oboes and bassoons – and perhaps an earthier brass tone; but, given the truly outstanding quality of the playing, such reservations seems churlish.

This is a major issue which every Sibelian will want to hear, and which will also act as a splendid introduction to the wonders of his music for newcomers.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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