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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, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
BIS BIS2006 SACD [82:00]

This SACD marks the completion of Osmo Vänskä’s second Sibelius symphony cycle for BIS, though I understand that a recording of Kullervo is ‘in the can’ and scheduled for 2017 release. The completion of this Minneapolis cycle was imperilled for a long time due to the protracted industrial dispute between the orchestra and its management but, happily, that’s now in the past.

When Vänskä began this cycle in 2011 with a pairing of the Second and Fifth symphonies (review) followed by the First and Fourth (review) I let them pass me by, despite appreciative reviews on MusicWeb International and elsewhere. I reasoned that I already had his splendid cycle made between 1995 and 1997 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra; when it came to shelf space one had to draw the line somewhere. However, when the opportunity to appraise this third instalment came along I found myself unable to resist. Had I been right to ignore the earlier releases?

It’s been a fascinating experience to compare and contrast the American and Finnish performances. The playing of both orchestras is magnificent and both sets of performances confirm Vänskä’s credentials as a perceptive and authoritative Sibelian. The recordings offer rather different aural experiences, however. The earlier recordings were made in the Church of the Cross (Ristinkirkko) in Lahti and are available on CD. The new recordings come from Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis and I listened to them as an SACD. In both cases the engineers have achieved excellent results. However, in the Lahti recordings the orchestra seems to be placed a bit further away from the listener while the Minneapolis recording is rather closer and has much more impact. In Minneapolis I had the sense that I was seated about 10 rows back in the stalls whereas in Lahti I felt as if I were somewhere in mid-hall. I like the Lahti sound a lot; it’s very natural. On the other hand there’s no denying the presence and extra detail that has been achieved in America.

Recently I sampled both discs with colleagues in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. Now that I’ve had the opportunity for much more extensive listening on my own equipment I find that the impressions we had then are confirmed. In summary we concluded that the new recording is clean and clear with a wide dynamic range. We also noted first rate definition, a very good sense of perspective and an excellent sense of the placing of each section of the orchestra. By comparison we felt that the Lahti recording, though very fine, was not quite as sharply defined and profiled and it didn’t quite match the more recent recording for presence and sense of perspective.

So, with the new recordings having a slight sonic edge, what of the performances? It seems to me that Vänskä does not appear to have rethought his interpretations to any significant degree. You may say, why would he, given that his thoughts on the scores were already so compelling and sounded so ‘right’ back in the 1990s. The Minneapolis reading of the Third Symphony is very fine indeed. In the first movement I relished the excellent forward thrust that the conductor imparts to the music. There’s some thrillingly soft pianissimo playing by the strings just after 3:00; that typifies the wide dynamic range that Vänskä obtains – and which the engineers report so successfully. The reading is really bracing and the loud passages are delivered with just the right amount of weight, which is to say that the weight of sound doesn’t vitiate the dynamism of the music’s progress. Vänskä is absolutely convincing in this movement. I should hasten to say that the results that he achieved in Lahti are scarcely less impressive.

The intermezzo-like second movement is beautifully judged by Vänskä. He moulds it skilfully, though not in any self-conscious way, and there’s abundant evidence of attention to detail. The overall timing of the movement is slightly shorter than in the Lahti account but I don’t believe there’s any real difference in the core tempo. I remember that when I reviewed Lorin Maazel’s Vienna Philharmonic cycle just over a year ago I felt that Vänskä seemed just a bit deliberate in this movement. Perhaps that was a reaction to hearing Maazel’s much swifter pacing, which felt wrong to me. Hearing Vänskä now in isolation – save for a comparison with himself – I’d now withdraw that earlier comment: he paces the second movement very well indeed. At the start of the finale there’s mercurial playing to savour in the new performance, something which is accentuated by the excellent recording. Around 4:05 the mood switches from scherzo-like effervescence as a more solemn, march-like idea assumes centre stage. Vänskä makes the music become increasingly intense – the American horns are terrific at 7:19. His Lahti account is pretty impressive too but I think it has to yield to the new version, if only because the American orchestra is recorded with greater impact. This account of the Third Symphony with the Minnesota Orchestra is super.

The opening of the Sixth Symphony sounds wonderfully clean and pure in the new performance. When the pace of the music picks up the Minnesotan’s playing is very light and fresh; the effect is akin to seeing a clear mountain stream. All the lines are consistently clear, even in the brief passages where the heavier instruments are involved. There’s some exquisite wind chording from the Minnesotans at the start of II. The performance of this movement is obviously scrupulously prepared yet it all seems inevitable and natural. The short third movement is surefooted and nimble while the athletic account of the finale is very spirited and, once again, benefits from super playing. Vänskä brings off the enigmatic conclusion expertly. The Lahti version is very fine indeed and in terms of the interpretation and the quality of performance it need not fear comparison with the newcomer. However, the more analytical sound in which the new performance is presented enhances the listener’s appreciation of Sibelius’s subtle and searching score, I think. Vänskä’s magnificent new recording, fully supported by the skill of the engineers, makes one appreciate what a terrific, original score this is.

The opening of the Seventh with its ascending crescendo is more exciting in Minneapolis than in Lahti and for once I don’t think that’s just down to the differences in the recorded sound. I think this time round Vänskä has sought to make that opening gesture more powerful and rhetorical. In the opening paragraphs he displays a strongly focussed approach to this highly concentrated music. As elsewhere on this disc the orchestra’s dynamic range is most impressive. At 5:29 we hear the first of the important trombone solos. The moment is superbly prepared by Vänskä and the solo is delivered magisterially by the orchestra’s principal, R Douglas Wright. It’s a pity that on the copy I have of the Lahti recording Wright’s Finnish colleague is not credited for the playing is equally eloquent and burnished of tone. The fast music that accounts for much of the symphony’s centre (from around 8:48) is deftly done. Vänskä imparts tremendous vitality to the music, as he did in Lahti. The fast music is interrupted by the second trombone solo (11:03) and here the performance has a brooding intensity. If that sounds not to be quite matched in Lahti I suspect it’s due to the different sonic perspectives. The third trombone intervention comes at 17:52 in the Minnesotan performance. It’s splendidly sonorously and, once again, Vänskä prepares for its arrival superbly. From here to the end the performance is simply magnificent, the music full of intensity and majesty. When I hear a compelling performance such as this – or the very different one conducted by Leonard Bernstein (review) – I’m not really surprised that the projected Eighth Symphony came to naught: how could Sibelius have capped the achievement of the Seventh? Returning to my comparison of Vänskä’s two recordings of the Seventh, there’s no denying the extra presence of the new recording. However, the older one is very fine and as the Lahti performance is as distinguished as the Minnesotan one I can only declare a photo finish.

A summary of this new disc can be brief. These are outstanding Sibelius performances, outstandingly recorded. So was I right to pass by the other two volumes in Vänskä’s new cycle? You know, somehow I think I’ll have to find room on the shelves for a couple more discs.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Gwyn Parry-Jones (Recording of the Month) ~ Brian Wilson



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