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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1898/99) [37.39]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1900/02) [43.12]
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1904/07) [28.17]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1909/11) [36.50]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1914/15, rev 1919) [30.32]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1914/23) [29.13]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1918/24) [21.48]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. December 2014 and February 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Berliner Philharmoniker
Pdf booklet included

Once upon a time the Berliner Philharmoniker had their own label, but it was short-lived. I own a single disc from that period – Kurt Sanderling’s accounts of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony and Haydn’s 82nd – and superb it is too. Times and technology have moved on since then; the BP now have a video streaming and archive service, the Digital Concert Hall, and they’ve revived their own-label as well. The latter, restricted to a handful of high-profile releases, is a deluxe, multi-platform package complete with handsome hardbacked documentation.

These boxes, destined to become collector’s items, contain standard Red Book CDs plus Blu-ray audio and video discs and codes for the appropriate downloads. The latter, available from the orchestra’s dedicated website, offer a variety of codecs (wav, flac) in stereo and 5.0 surround, at resolutions of up to 24-bit/192kHz. As previous reviewers focused on the physical contents of this Sibelius set I requested the 24/96 flacs for review. These files are priced at 49 euros (£37.50), which is considerably less than the boxed item (69 euros/£53). No low-res, low-rent mp3s here, but if that’s what you want try Amazon or iTunes.

Previous issues in this sumptuous series have been well received on these pages. John Quinn certainly had good things to say about Sir Simon Rattle’s Schumann symphonies (review). There's more to come; at the time of writing - January 2016 - the BP had just released a recording of Claudio Abbado's final concert with them in May 2013. As for Rattle he recorded his first Sibelius symphony – the Fifth – with the Philharmonia at Abbey Road in 1981 (review). I bought that disc not long afterwards, but I haven’t played it in over thirty years. Could that be an ill omen?

Rattle is up against some very stiff competition in this repertoire. Until recently my go-to set was Osmo Vänskä‘s, recorded with the Lahti SO between 1996 and 1997 (review). There’s a wonderful freshness to those readings, a thrilling sense of renewal, that never fails to please me. I’m less persuaded by his Minnesota remakes, the final instalment of which is due this year. Then again Sibelius’s 150th birthday in 2015 yielded a complete set from John Storgårds and the BBC Phil (Chandos) and saw the start of one from Thomas Søndergård and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Linn). I’ve sampled both, and while there are some good things there the performances seem quite variable (review). Also, Universal reissued Lorin Maazel's classic Vienna cycle from the 1960s (review). However, Okko Kamu’s new Lahti set is a revelation; indeed, it’s my new benchmark for these works (review).

With the high-res files duly imported into Audirvana Plus I selected the first movements of the First Symphony and hit Play. The start of the Andante is very atmospheric and the stereo spread is good. The recording is immaculate and the playing has all the sophistication you’d expect from this elite ensemble. So why doesn’t this music grip me the way it does with Vänskä or Kamu? Is it that the presentation is just too slick, or that Rattle’s fastidiousness undermines the work’s integrity? I also miss the crunching climaxes and heartfelt asides that animate this lovely piece.

True, the Andante (ma non troppo lento) is simply ravishing, but then Rattle spoils the effect with his agogic pauses. Such emphases – a form of parenthesising – are inimical to the music’s flow and inner dialectic; not only that, they lead to perorations that sound rhetorical at best. Frustrating, but given my past experiences with this conductor not unexpected. If you’re searching for the noble heart and soul of this symphony Vänskä/Lahti is where you’ll find them. The sound and playing there are pretty good, too.

For me Sibelius sans nobility isn’t Sibelius at all, and without that essential gruffness and grandeur he becomes rather bland. Trouble is, the term ‘rough hewn’ doesn’t seem to be in the Berliner's musical lexicon; it certainly isn’t in Rattle’s. But it’s the conductor’s obsession with the moment rather than the whole half hour that really hobbles these performances. Just sample the restless ebb and flow that usually draws one deep into the core of the Second Symphony; in Rattle’s hands it lacks the dark compulsion that others find in this unsettling masterpiece. Yes, the Berlin brass are splendid in the second and final movements, but without a convincing context that doesn’t count for much.

By contrast Kamu’s account of the Second has a thrust and sweep that's simply breathtaking. I even described it as 'ur-Sibelius, the likes of which I've never heard before'. He's also very impressive in the less-popular Third Symphony; indeed, he makes a compelling case for this immensely rewarding piece. Alas, Rattle is unremarkable here; even the otherwise excellent Berlin recording is no match for BIS's in terms of body and bite. As an aside, reviewing these symphonies en bloc allows one to chart the composer's musical development. With Vänskä and Kamu each one of them is freighted with a marvellous sense of anticipation and discovery. I don't find any of those qualities in Rattle's Sibelius, which is dispiriting to say the least.

After all, conductors are like archaeologists, working to find what lies beneath the surface. That's just the first step; next, our doughty diggers must assemble their ‘finds’ in a way that offers an explanation - a narrative - that makes sense of it all. Alas, Rattle, in thrall to needless detail, simply fails to do that. With growing trepidation I plunged into the Fourth Symphony, willing him to take the next step. The gnarled first movement is certainly closer to the Sibelian sound world than anything I've heard thus far, but while these individual artefacts are intriguing in themselves they never assume a meaningful shape or pattern. Then again, that's usually what happens when style is pursued at the expense of substance.

More than halfway through and I’ve not been engaged - let alone moved - by any of these performances. How is that possible with these, some of the greatest symphonies of the last century? Thank goodness for Vänskä, Kamu and, in the Fourth especially, the underrated Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca); all of them bring out the darker aspects of the piece, its thrilling rasp and reach. Again I was struck by the sheer beauty and transparency of the Berlin 'sound'. That's no surprise - it's Karajan's old orchestra, after all - but Abbado turned them into a grittier, more distinctive group. Here they seem to have acquired a corporate sheen that I find terribly oppressive.

That’s certainly not ideal in Sibelius's stark, unrepentant Fifth Symphony, with its mighty interrogative at the end. Rattle's performance is just so damn equivocal, so devoid of energy and conviction. Contrast that with Leonard Bernstein's live LSO account, which is like being grabbed by the throat and slammed against the wall (review). That’s what I want from the Fifth, not this soft, maddening circularity on offer here. Rattle may feel he’s rethinking these symphonies, but if that’s the case then I'm not persuaded. Very occasionally this performance threatens to impress, only to revert to its default position: dull.

Goodness, this has turned into a grim, teeth-gritting exercise. The Sixth Symphony is probably one of Sibelius’s most elliptical works, and I’m pleased to report that Rattle’s opening Allegro captures something of its abiding strangeness. Now this is more interesting - more human - but I do wish he’d follow through, building on what he’s found. Even his players seem to have been roused from their usual torpor; animation at last! Ditto Rattle’s reading of the single-movement Seventh Symphony, but even that feels comparatively lightweight when heard alongside Vänskä, Kamu and, in particular, the surprisingly vital Søndergård.

I had no intention of being adversarial when I started this review, but I’m afraid that’s the way it reads. I know this set has been acclaimed here and elsewhere, but I’m afraid it’s not for me. As I see it the problem is twofold; Rattle isn’t a natural Sibelian and these playetrs have grown complacent under his tutelage. Let’s hope his successor, the wild card Kirill Petrenko, can kick some life into this once great orchestra. In the meantime, cherish those Vänskä and Kamu sets; not only are they immensely rewarding they’re also good value; at eClassical the lossless files can be had for as little as £29 and £17 respectively.

Over-priced and over-praised; Rattle’s Sibelius doesn’t begin to challenge the best in the catalogue.

Dan Morgan

Previous reviews: John Quinn (Recordng of the Month) and Michael Cookson



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