A little while ago, Classical Explorer looked at Sibelius' Kullervo and, with it, Osmo Vänskä's second recording in the single-disc format. All of which coincides nicely with the release of the four-SACD boxed set from BIS of Vänskä's latest Sibelius cycle (which includes Kullervo; but to avoid repetition, please follow the link above for more on that performance). Vänskä recorded the symphonies previously with the Lahti forces; here, he has a super-slick American vehicle at his disposal. It is a powerful combination, the sheer technical ecellence of the Minnesotans and Vänskä's deep understanding of these scores.
A quick work on layout: SACD One contains Symphonies 1 & 4; SACD Two, Symphonies 2 & 5; SACD Three, Symphonies 3, 6 & 7; SACD Four, Kullervo.
In the First Symphony (1899), not only does Vänskä have all the right atmospherics, he nails the glowering undertones of this music, so that when Sibelius lets the light in, it really registers on the emotional spectrum. Still in his thirties when he wrote this, Sibelius' score has a raw edge that the earlier Lahti performance was certainly well-attuned to; here, we get most of that but with an extra sonic layer (the recording is stunning).
The Second Symphony of 1902 is surely Sibelius' best known, and indeed best loved, symphony. Cast in a lovely, warm D major, it is a piece where everything seems to come together, with an overarching scheme in mind that results in the most exquisite turn to the tonic major in the closing pages of the finale. It is this structuralism that is a defining characteristic of Sibelius' symphonic works, this ability to create tension over large spans of time, then release it at the perfect moment; we will encounter it again when Thor swings his hammer at the end of the Fifth Symphony. Vänskä in Minnesota with the Second Symphony is lean textured, a world away from the rcording I first heard this piece on: an LP of Malcolm Sargent and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, incredibly atmospheric in their 1958 recording (HMV ALP 1639, if anyone's interested). With Sargent, one could almost taste the air of the Finnish forests; Vänskä's strengths lie in the delineation of textures. in the revelling in the scampering of the Scherzo and the beauties he finds in the finale (try the 4-5 minute mark). And just listen to the definition of the timpani in this recording!
Talking of the Second and (pre-emptively) the Fifth, here's a video from the issuing copmany, BIS, about just these symphonies:
Vänskä's transparency works supremely well in the case of the Third Symphony (1904-07). Robert Suff's superb recording both in terms of detail and perspective is a real contributing factor, too. The Third is compact: that scholar of all things Nordic Robert Layton, who pens the booklet notes, refers to its "overt classicism" and "purity of utterance". This piece is as far as one can get from its predecessor. Coming in at just under half an hour in toto, it is a little miniature. Let's hear the first movement:
The second movement is gentle, dignified, almost a Sibelius take on a Baroque dance; and how graceful are the Minnesotan winds here. One almost feels Haydn would be proud of this symphony: grace, concision, rusticity, grit, it has it all, and all held within the most beautiful frame.
As much as the Second is towering but assailable, for many the Fourth (1909-11) is the first Sibelius symphony that is problematical. Layton rightly refers to its "severity," and indeed the bare-boned scoring can seem intimidating. But Vänskä understands that that very act of paring down is an emotional act in and of itself. The piece was even hissed at its premiere in Gothenberg (conducted by Wilhelm Stenhammar). Today we tend to be far more receptive to works that challenge us, and indeed Vänskä reminds us that there ia nobility behind the craggy exterior. The significant use of a tritone in melodic shapes gives an idea of what we are dealing with (what in earlier times was referred to as "Diabolus in musica" - two notes three whole-tones apart, which results in an interval of an augmented fourth). But it is not all bleakness: how the oboe pipes at he begninning of the second movement; and the addition of light percussion at the opening stretch of the finale perhaps reminds us that all is not lost:
Vänskä's earlier set included two versions of the Fifth Symphony (the orignal 1915 and the revised version: here we have the 1914-15 score with the 1916 and 1919 revisions). This is in many ways the most heroic of the set; as an ex-horn player I can attest to the satisfaction of the great finale, pairs of horns alternating to create a seamless sonic representation of "Thor swinging his hammer". The Fifth is a piece of granite in music, as we can hear right from the start of Vänskä's first movement. And when we get to the finale, we can hear the power of the end in the electric beginning. Can't we?:
(In fact, that feeling of tension runs all the way through the symphony, including underpinning the Andante mosso second movement). This is powerful stuff, and we're in the hands of a master.
And here, for the fun of comparisons both of performance and of edition, is the complete Lahti performance of the original version:
The Sixth and Seventh Symphonies share disc space with No 3, as we saw above: resulting in a playing time of some 83 minutes. This disc was the final one to be released in the cycle (and quite a frought one, I believe, due to some industrial action due to a dispute between orchestra and management).
We saw how Vänskä's crystal clear musical vision pays dividends, particularly in the Third and Fouth, for different reasons. The Sixth is another symphony that some shy away from. It is Sibelius at his most sophisticated, but also his most elliptical. Listen to the harmonic progressions of the first movement:
At times, it feels like Sibelius is whispering in our ear; but what he is saying alludes to dreams, not waking moments. Perhaps not as chilling as the Fourth (certainly not at the opening of its finale), the Sixth still seems to want to appear behind a veil. That Vänskä and his players respect that gives the interpretation its strength.
And with the Seventh, we return to that concision we felt in the Third, but now in an entirely different guise. Again, we can hear Vänskä's structural acuity; one movement, 22.5 minutes, and a piece that, as Layton rightly puts it, "crowns his symphonic achievement". It is only right, then, to quote the work complete:
We have concentrated on this new set today. I should mention that in my youth (some time ago now!) I do remember significant Sibelius with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester's Free Trade Hall under Okko Kamu, who was then a regular visitor to the North; Kamu is another conductor who has recorded a complete Sibelius cycle for BIS, with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.