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Johan (Jean) Christian Julius SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52 (1904-07) [29:50]
Symphony No.6 in d minor, Op.104 (1922-23) [28:58]
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105 (1923-24) [22:01]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA, May-June 2015. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as 24/96 download from eclassical.com, with pdf booklet. Also available in mp3, 16-bit and 24-bit surround sound and from dealers on SACD.
BIS BIS-2006 SACD [82:00]

This recording rounds off Osmo Vänskä’s second cycle of recordings of the Sibelius symphonies. Inevitably my prime comparisons have been with his very fine earlier recordings with the Lahti Orchestra, still available separately or as part of the complete symphony set:

- Nos. 2 and 3 BIS-CD-862

- Nos. 6 and 7 with Tapiola BIS-CD-864

- Symphonies 1-7 as part of The Essential Sibelius BIS-CD-1697/1700, 15 CDs for the price of 4 – review

- Symphonies 1-7 with fragments and preliminary versions BIS-CD-1933/35, 5 CDs for the price of 3 – see link to reviews below.

For the exact coupling of Nos. 3, 6 and 7 there’s a budget-price Chandos recording from the Scottish National Orchestra and Sir Alexander Gibson, slightly long in the tooth (1982/3) and download only but far from superannuated (CHAN6557 – from theclassicalshop.net, mp3 £4.80; lossless £4.99, with pdf booklet). Gibson’s earlier Saga LP recording of Nos. 3 and 7, STXID5284, was the first version that I owned – by good luck I managed to obtain a copy with decent surfaces – and the Chandos CD still lives in my collection despite regular purges to make room for new discs. Tempi are consistently fast but there’s much to be said for pushing the pace in Sibelius – Horst Stein’s still unbeaten Night Ride and Sunrise a case in point for me. (Decca Eloquence 4823922, 3 CDs at budget price, or Double Decca 4525762, 2 budget-price CDs, with other Stein and Ashkenazy recordings.)

Only in the finale of No.6 does Gibson take longer than Vänskä on either of his recordings and then only by seconds. Very rarely, however, does one have the feeling that he is pushing the music too hard. Similarly, though the SNO of the 1980s was not in the top flight, only occasionally could one wish for a more rounded sound – after all, there isn’t quite the same lushness in these symphonies that is required more often in Nos. 1, 2 and 5. The recording is ADD and dates from earlier than the ‘1990’ given on the TCS website – their claims are often to be taken with a pinch of salt – but the sound holds up well.

The impecunious need look no further unless they also want Symphony No.5, En Saga and Tapiola, in which case Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia Orchestra on a budget-price Decca twofer will serve well (E4554052, download only, available from Presto). I wouldn’t now rate Ashkenazy’s Sibelius in quite the top flight, though I used to own his LPs of the symphonies, but this twofer is still competitive at the price: Nos. 1, 2 and 4, with Finlandia and the Karelia Suite are on another Double Decca, 4554022, currently on offer for £5.75.

Those with deeper pockets, however, will benefit from either of the BIS offerings. If you have not yet snapped up Vänskä’s earlier recordings of the complete symphonies on Volume 12 of the Sibelius Edition, you should do so, now that the eclassical.com download is finally competitive with the CD set at $28.74 – reviewreview.

Having found the earlier Minnesota releases very slightly disappointing by comparison with the earlier Lahti recordings, I wondered if I would prefer the new album to the Lahti versions. BIS’s boss Robert von Bahr assured me that I would.

At first I thought him wrong: No.3 is a little slow to get under way, so I prefer Gibson’s approach to either Vänskä recording, and the Lahti version to the new Minnesota. Later, however, the new recording won me over. The tempo remains overall almost exactly as before but the Minnesota playing has a slightly greater degree of opulence than the Lahti or the SNO for Gibson and the 24-bit sound, with the reservation about levels noted below is even better than the (very good) older 16-bit.

The second movement now moves slightly faster than on the Lahti recording but still considerably more slowly than from Gibson. It’s marked andantino con moto, quasi allegretto but you may well consider that Gibson emphasises con moto and allegretto a little too much, losing some of the Sibelian mystery of the movement. A slower tempo for this movement is sanctified by the example of Sibelius’s friend Kajanus, but it comes slightly at the expense of the con moto marking. There’s a compromise which you may find obtains the best of both worlds in another BIS recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, conducted by veteran Sibelian Okko Kamu on an economical complete set of the symphonies released in 2015 – reviewDownload News 2015/9. (BIS-2076, 3 SACDs, around £20-£25 or download in 16- or 24-bit from eclassical.com.) Very generously BIS in competing with themselves have given us access to three very fine cycles of these symphonies.

John Storgårds with the BBC Philharmonic on another recent complete 3-disc set agrees with Kamu on a compromise tempo for this movement. I commented briefly but favourably on this set in Download News 2014/6. I never got round to the more detailed review which I promised then but this is another set fully worthy of consideration. At prices ranging from £15.99 (mp3) to £24.99 (less than the original price for 24-bit) or around £25 on CD it’s another complete recording well worth considering (CHAN10809).

Kamu and Storgårds are in agreement with Vänskä-Lahti and Vänskä-Minnesota about the tempo for the finale, which Gibson tends to rush slightly: the warnings are in the indications moderato and allegro ma non tanto.

The approach to No.6 remains largely as before, though the outer movements benefit from being given a little more time to breathe than before, and that sways the balance in favour of the new recording for me, though the finale is still fairly fast. Even Gibson reads the finale at a slower pace than Vänskä-Lahti – he’s even slightly slower still than Vänskä-Minnesota. Kamu and Storgårds also agree on a slowish tempo here.

No.6 can seem discursive to the point of meandering at times and I don’t think any of the recordings under consideration quite remove that impression but both Vänskä recordings are as convincing as any and more than most. Especially in the new Minnesota recording I noticed more magic in this symphony than I used to give it credit for.

Vänskä takes the one-movement No.7 a little faster than before: even so he, Storgårds and Kamu are still less hurried than Gibson and while I have argued that a hectic tempo can work in Sibelius, this final symphony, though still unmistakably Sibelian, is a very different affair from Night Ride and Sunrise. It’s a work to savour and the new recording allows that. Having said that, if anyone could persuade that a fastish tempo is possible, it’s Sir Thomas Beecham, one of Sibelius’s favourite interpreters, recorded in 1942 with the New York Philharmonic (Beulah 2PDR4 – Download News 2015/10) and in stereo on EMI/Warner Great Recordings 5096922, download only – Bargain of the Month. Even with Beecham in mind, however, the closing pages of the new Vänskä No.7 are as stirring as I’ve ever heard and as stirring as any recording of any Sibelius work that I’ve ever heard.

If you ever thought this the last gasp of a played-out composer, this heart-warming account will make you think again. That final chord hangs tantalisingly in the air as if the composer were telling us that there was more to come. Sibelius experimented with the end of the Seventh and two alternatives are recorded in Volume 12 of the BIS complete edition. Both are interesting but neither quite hits the spot as well or is as life-enhancing as the final version, especially as heard in the new recording. The expectation of an eighth symphony persisted for years but sadly there isn’t even a sketch comparable to Mahler’s Tenth or Elgar’s Third or even Tchaikovsky’s Seventh, with only about three minutes surviving the destruction of the manuscript.

The recording quality of the new release is very good and it comes with the option of surround sound for 24-bit purchasers. BIS have always prided themselves on the dynamic range of their recordings – early releases used to carry a warning about damage to speakers – but I do think that a degree of compression would have been in order. Though I know that there will be cogent arguments to the contrary, we don’t all live in acoustically sealed environments, especially with the windows open in summer. Having set my amplifier at the usual level, the opening of No.3 and some later sections were barely audible; turning up the volume resulted in an uncomfortably loud sound thereafter. The effect would be emphasised if the music were played in the car, but Sibelius 3 wouldn’t be my choice for in-car performance. The opening of No.3 on the older recording is also very quiet but to a lesser extent.

Without knocking the earlier Lahti recordings out of the running, especially as enshrined in the two economical sets listed above, there’s just enough to put the new Vänskä ahead of the game, especially for those who have already invested in the earlier volumes and for those requiring surround sound, on SACD or 24-bit download (which will be at a discounted price at eclassical for a short while). Having thought the older recordings of the other symphonies preferable to the new, I’m delighted to welcome the final release. Perhaps once the trials and tribulations which beset Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota orchestra had been overcome they were especially inspired for this release.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones (Recording of the Month)




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