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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Complete Symphonies
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]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 2014/15, Philharmonie, Berlin

This edition received some mixed reviews when it was first issued in a deluxe package which included DVDs of the performances to complement the audio discs. What we have here is a somewhat extravagant re-release, formatted on 5 hybrid SACDs. The programme notes are exemplary and presented in a booklet of the highest quality. It must be said straight away that the orchestral playing is simply brilliant: the string sound is phenomenal, underpinned by the fabulous Berlin bass and cello sections. The whole orchestra produces a sound of great cohesion and beauty and ensemble is immaculate. On that basis alone, I could immediately recommend the set but, of course, life is never quite that easy. Turning to the recording quality, the engineers have produced a sound that is bright, detailed and wide ranging with a remarkable dynamic range. Just like the playing, it is warm, homogenous, natural and beautiful. Rattle’s interpretations haven’t changed much since his Birmingham days and it must be said that his CBSO forces on the earlier EMI cycle aren’t completely outclassed by the Berliners.

The First Symphony gets the cycle off to a flying start.  It’s exciting, highly romantic and involving. The timps are thrillingly captured and the slow movement is really melting with some lovely piano playing that makes you catch your breath. Maybe the great string tune in the finale is a little overdone but this is romantic music after all, so you can just wallow in the sound. Those who enjoy Maazel with the Vienna Philharmonic will warm to this.

The Second Symphony doesn’t seem to catch fire in the opening movement. It’s all very casual and even the great central climax doesn’t quite excite as it should. Where are those thwacks on the drums? The slow movement, despite the beautiful playing, doesn’t have the melancholy chill you get with some other recordings (Hannikainen, for example). The last two movements are splendid, and the work ends quite gloriously.
The Third Symphony has a strong first movement with a tempo that sounds just right. The horns are a bit reticent for my taste but the extraordinary passage of stillness, when the music seems to collapse into a black hole, sounds really haunting. The second movement is gentle and warm rather than icy. This seems to be a recurring issue as I listen. Is the tone of the orchestra just too homogenous and warm for some of this music? Anthony Collins offers a different sound world and I still view his cycle, despite the early mono sound, as the benchmark. It has a Nordic chill as opposed to Rattle’s warmth. Rattle’s comfortable-sounding finale lacks urgency and here I prefer Barbirolli (EMI) and the early Gibson recording (Saga and now on Klassic Haus).
Rattle’s Fourth is a performance of real stature. He plunges us straight in at the deep end with a deeply disturbing opening movement and the slow movement is austere and full of despair. The Berliners manage to be rich-toned (especially the lower strings) but the romance is stripped away. It brings to mind Karajan’s 1950s Philharmonia version - still my own preference - which can be found on the Major Classics bargain label coupled with symphonies 2 and 5. This new Berlin recording is up there with the best.

The Fifth was given a great performance in a recording made by Rattle and the Philharmonia in the early 1980s. I feel that is still the best Rattle version to go for; this Berlin version also has a lot going for it but, alas, only in patches. The first movement is completely involving. Inner detail is excellent and the mournful bassoon solo has the right other-worldly sound the composer must have intended. The last couple of minutes of this movement are superb; Rattle whips the orchestra forward like some sort of out of control juggernaut - breath-taking stuff. Strangely enough, I lose interest in the rest of the performance. Yes, the playing is magnificent but it’s very smooth, streamlined and - I’m sorry to say - a bit dull. The final pages are thrilling but it’s difficult for such a climax to be anything else.

The slight dullness of the Fifth immediately evaporates when one goes on to listen to the marvellous opening of the Sixth Symphony.  The string tone is pared away and we get somewhat closer to the chilly Sibelius sonority than we have previously heard in this cycle. The playing is somehow more spontaneous here, as if the orchestra has been let off the leash. I still have allegiances to Maazel (Sony/Pittsburgh) and Davis (RCA/Boston) but this is a thoroughly engaging account of this rather elusive symphony.

The Seventh strikes me as the best performance of all. Ultimately, Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic tick all the boxes for me but this comes very close. Rattle gives us a unified whole. There’s a certain ruggedness about it and a sense of forward momentum.; a superb end to a rather patchy but wonderfully played set.

There are so many complete cycles out there nowadays. Many of them offer just as much if not more than Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. For big boned Sibelius in modern sound, Oramo could be your man with the CBSO. If cool authenticity and spontaneity is your thing, then go for the mono Collins with the LSO (Decca). There are two safe recommendations that I always turn to: Colin Davis (his earlier Philips Boston set) and Lorin Maazel (his remake for Sony). You can’t go far wrong with either.

John Whitmore

Previous reviews (original release): John Quinn (Recording of the Month) ~ Michael Cookson ~ Dan Morgan



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