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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Introduction to Symphony No 1 + Symphonic Themes [31:03]
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899) [41:16]
Introduction to Symphony No 2 + Symphonic Themes [26:50]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op 43 (1902) [45:49]
Introduction to Symphony No 3 + Symphonic Themes [24:40]
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op 52 (1907) [30:12]
Introduction to Symphony No 4 + Symphonic Themes [27:05]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op 63 (1911) [40:15]
Introduction to Symphony No 5 + Symphonic Themes [27:13]
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op 82 (1919) [34:20]
Introduction to Symphony No 6 + Symphonic Themes [24:59]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1923) [30:58]
Introduction to Symphony No 7 + Symphonic Themes [28:53]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924) [22:32]
Special feature: Sibelius, Lintu and 7 Symphonies [59:37] Documentary narrated by Hannu Lintu
Sort of Sibelius! Short film series by Pia Hirvensalo [80:00]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. live, Helsinki Music Centre (no dates given)
Video 1080i 16:9, Audio LPCM Stereo 2.0, DTS-MA 5.1 Surround, Region free
Subtitles: English, German, French, Korean, Japanese
Also included: Hardback book (87 pages) in English, French and German, plus a 180-page Arthaus catalogue
Reviewed in surround
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 101797 [3 discs: 565:00]

Having spent a happy week in Lahti, Finland in September 2015 for their Sibelius Festival, this huge box was an invitation to revisit all of the symphonies in alternative performances and recorded not so far away in Helsinki. Too much Sibelius is an oxymoron and even though this set takes far more than a week to view, it has been a pleasure almost throughout. As the headers indicate, each work has both a documentary introduction and a pre-concert lecture on the music called 'Symphonic Themes'. These have the inestimable luxury of the FRSO playing the illustrations as well as the contemporary Finnish composer Osmo Tapio Räihälä acting as Hannu Lintu's interviewer and as generator of exactly the right questions. There is also an eight-part film entitled 'Sort of Sibelius!', a dramatic re-imagining of aspects of Sibelius' life and work directed by Piia Hirvensalo. Technically all aspects are above reproach, video and audio are of the highest standard and make full use of the high-resolution possibilities of Blu-ray. There is no point in purchasing the inevitably technically inferior DVD unless you have no player for the newer medium.

Lintu's performances are uniformly magnificent. It is hard to pin down exactly why it feels like this but I would draw the parallel with the Vienna Philharmonic playing Johann Strauss - they just sound 'right'. The first movement of the 1st Symphony sounds wonderful and is enhanced by the countless little details of eye contact and looks of satisfaction caught by the well directed cameras. The Second Symphony reaches the grandest of perorations seemingly without effort. The Third, always a problematic work, gains equality with its neighbouring symphonies mainly because the tempi always sound correct. The grim Fourth is the emotional body-blow Sibelius must have intended, written as it was whilst he was suffering his close call with throat cancer. The Fifth could have a little more grandeur I felt but it is never less than excellent. The Sixth and Seventh are as good as any recordings I have heard. All in all the set is well up with the supremely good Kamu/Lahti SACDs on BIS (review ~ review) and the older but classic Berglund/BSO cycle on EMI Classics. Both are sparer than the superb but slightly too-well-upholstered Karajan (review ~ review); a performer of his works, be it noted, that Sibelius greatly admired.

One might assume that the series of introductory talks to each symphony given by the conductor is the same as the 'Documentary' about the symphonies on the final disc. In fact the long documentary is clearly edited from the same set of takes but is not quite identical. An uninterrupted hour about all the pieces worked better for me because it allows one to take in the overall sweep of Sibelius' symphonic output. It also seems to cut back slightly on the number of shots of Hannu Lintu looking thoughtful over yet another coffee or beer. However, I am not knocking his commentary. He gives the most thoughtful and well informed presentation one could wish for. With the addition of a lot of documentary film and a few imaginative montages dressed up to look like documentaries, this makes for a very fine hour's viewing. Lintu, apparently unscripted, is a top class and very erudite commentator as well as conductor. I was left wishing for even more detail about the genesis of these seven great masterpieces. Despite the repetitions of the many 2015 performances, I came away even more impressed by the quality of this marvellous music. The documentary rehearsal sequences with various orchestras, Finnish, Swedish and German, in various venues, are all fascinating to watch. Regarding the performance videos themselves; it is quite obvious that not all the rehearsals we are shown are actually for the subsequent filmed performances. There are changes of personnel in the Finnish Radio Symphony between the two, as well as throughout the symphonic series. What is consistent is the quality of playing and the commitment of the players. I cannot be as enthusiastic about the series 'Sort of Sibelius' directed by Piia Hirvensalo. Others might enjoy these partially dramatised insights into the composer more than I did, but for me they were too full of the sort of frivolous visuals and TV clichés that have so damaged our broadcast documentaries over the past couple of decades. The presence of Kaija Saariaho comparing her career and compositional issues with those of Sibelius does add some interest but it casts more light on her than on Sibelius, who is after all the focus of this Blu-ray set. Her interviews have, I believe, been re-edited by Piia Hirvensalo for YLE, Finnish television, with the focus on her. The one aspect of this film that makes it worth some attention is the inclusion of film clips and photographs of Sibelius and fin de siècle Europe, so it has to be included in my overall enthusiastic recommendation. Finally there is the slim, hard-cover book in English, French and German, containing all the disc information plus long and rather opaque essays on the music; better that than trivial I guess.

Dave Billinge

Previous review (DVD): John Quinn



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