Sibelius: The Fifth Symphony Recordings Survey Part 1

The Fifth Symphony
Recordings Survey Part 1
Last update: 16 May 2000

by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcasetm

Click here for Inktroduction | Part 2 | Historic

PART 1 Iceland SO/Sakari | Bournemouth SO/Berglund (Royal Classics)
Berlin PO/Karajan (DG) | Philharmonia/Ashkenazy (Decca)
Lahti SO/Vänskä (BIS) | Philharmonia/Rattle (HMV)
Helsinki PO/Berglund (EMI Forte)
PART 2 Sinf. London/Hannikainen (Seraphim) | London SO/Davis (RCA)
Boston SO/Davis (Philips) | Berlin SO/Sanderling (Berlin)
Danish RSO/Segerstam (Chandos) | NYPO/Bernstein (Sony)
Gothenburg SO/Järvi (BIS)HISTORIC LSO/Kajanus (Finlandia, 1932) | Royal Stockholm PO/Ehrling (Finlandia, 1953)
Philharmonia/Karajan (EMI, 1952) | Philharmonia/Karajan (EMI, 1960)

In approximate order of release (including reissue) date

Symphonies Nos.4 & 5.
Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554377
[69:19] budget-price. Symphony No.5 (31’17”) recorded Feb 1998 (released Mar 2000).

Not a straightfoward recommendation. I greatly enjoyed the magnificent performance of the first movement – it has great flow, excellent stringwork, with detailed, unfussy ostinato, ample orchestral body and visionary splendour displayed in the original second movement. However, the finale is unsatisfactory – it is quite literally unimpressive.

The introduction sounds tired, compared to other versions, and though the pacing of the horns in the “Swan Hymn” is good, they sound just a tad weary. The difficult punctuating phrase from the double-basses sound very ugly here (granted, this isn’t the only performance where this is a flaw). Sakari plays down and does not exploit the majestic modulation into C major in the famous climax of the “Swan Hymn”. When one compares this to more joyous, magnificent interpretations – it is difficult to recommend this Fifth, if only because the “Swan Hymn” is such a crucial point with collectors of this symphony.

The slow movement is played with ample detail, but sounds just a little bit detached. The phrasing is just a little bit too rigid, lacking a sort of “lyric curvaceousness”. The interpretation does not “smile” enough… it is just somewhat too serious. Technically though, this is not a bad reading – there are many details to be heard. (Extract from the full review).

Symphonies Nos.1-7. Pelléas et Mélisande Suite. The Swan of Tuonela. Lemminkäinen’s Return. En Saga.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund

4 discs [300:31] budget-price. Symphony No.5 (32’00”) recorded 1973 (reissued 1999).

This Fifth Symphony opens with a rounded and beautifully evocative rendition of the wind solos. The acoustic of the Guildhall, Southampton catches just a touch of reverberation to give the music that sense of expansive distance, so important to this great symphonic tribute to nature. Needless to say, the misterioso section of the first and last movements are handled with great atmosphere. Indeed, this performance of the Fifth is so… the word that springs to mind is “healthy” – the entire first movement glows with shining life and exuberant vitality, exactly what this work exemplifies in spirit. The transparency of the orchestral soundscape seems to showcase every single living, breathing vessel of the work. Highly recommended with heartfelt enthusiasm. (Extract from the full review).

Symphonies Nos.4-7.
The Swan of Tuonela. Tapiola.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Herbert von Karajan DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON The Originals 457 748-2
2 discs [159:07] mid-price. Symphony No.5 (31’34”) recorded 1965 (reissued March 1999).

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is a Karajan specialty, having recorded it four times. It is a glorious miracle that this classic recording is still so convincing and wonderful. Whereas interpretations of the symphony in later years tend to be more “serene”, Karajan’s 1965 reading here belongs to the class of “brimming with heroic life force” – even the Andante is filled with palpable energy. Needless to say, although there are more refined (as in orchestral texture) versions of the Swan Hymn, this rendition remains very impressive. It is beautiful in its solid vitality, powerfully sculpted but very beautiful – for want of a better word: Olympian. Listen to the brass – what brazen beauty! Like some titanic bronze hero striding godlike through the symphony. I particularly like Karajan’s conclusion, with the closely spaced final chords – but I think this is mainly because this is my first version (I bought the original full-price CD) and I “grew up” on it.

If you like Karajan’s sense of power but want a more refined style, try Segerstam’s. The latter’s Chandos recording is close in spirit, but the colours are cleaner. No matter what, this is a classic. Remember too that Herbert von Karajan was a faithful champion of Sibelius at the height of the composer’s (brief) period of unpopularity, and Germans have never been fans either.

Symphonies Nos.3, 5, 6, 7. Tapiola. En Saga
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy DECCA Double 455 405-2 (Complete Symphonies Vol.2)
2 discs [150:20] budget-price. Symphony No.5 (31’35”) recorded 1980 (reissued 1998).

This is a very good reading of the Fifth from a well-known cycle which nonetheless has never really been my top recommendation (that is, the cycle). Ashkenazy is a faithful conductor of Sibelius, and his efforts are very admirable in this majestic reading. The spectacular Decca engineering does wonders for the magnificent unfolding of the first movement. The fine balance and nicely fused voices of strong orchestra, brass and timpani are put to very good use. Ashkenazy gives a peaceful and sweet account of the Andante, followed by a blazing Finale, with an awe-inspiring rendition of the Swan Hymn. Highly recommended – buy this set also for an absolutely First Class, earth-shaking account of En Saga.

The companion set which completes this cycle is on 455 402-2.

Symphony No.5 (Original 1915 and final 1919 version)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä BIS CD-863 [67:32] full-price. Recorded May 1995 & June 1997 (released 1998). 1915 version also coupled with En Saga (1892) BIS CD-800 full-price

ADVICE: Familiarise yourself with the final version BEFORE you listen to the original.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra play the Fifth in its final version with obvious familiarity, as you might expect from a Finnish orchestra. To their credit, there is absolutely no sign of monotony or routineness. Instead, I hear kinship and intelligence; the Andante is beautifully done, the Swan Hymn convincingly paced, not to mention the occasional different interpretations in phrasing and harmonic balance. During the quiet, “misterioso” sections of the first and last movement, their empathy with the Nordic sound world is unique. The special colours – soft ones, hard ones – that the Orchestra has repeatedly demonstrated over the years is audible here. As usual, the BIS sound and the intelligent orchestra reveals all the transparent score of the symphony.

The superb recording and performance aside, the recording of the original Fifth serves as an important reminder to us of the nature of the evolving artist and his dynamic art. If Sibelius’ music is essentially organic in nature, then the opportunity to hear the original Fifth showed me clearly the link between the Fourth and the Fifth. It is almost as if it was meant to be Symphony No.4¾. It also thus served to remind me of the illusion that differently numbered symphonies are separate entities. In fact, the entire symphonic cycle is a singular Nature in itself. (Extract from the full review).

Serious collectors of the Fifth must have this CD.

Symphony No.5*. Finlandia. The Oceanides. Tapiola. Night Ride and Sunrise*
*Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Rest of programme by Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Paavo Berglund. HMV Classics 5 72158-2
[77:16] budget-price. Symphony No.5 (31’37”) recorded 1982 (reissued 1997).

In this acclaimed (in its time – it doesn’t get mentioned much these days) 1982 recording, Rattle provides a particularly sensitive interpretation of the work. I cannot but marvel at its amazing consistency of expression – it is so true and sincere, brimming with architectural cohesion. The buildups to climaxes are marvellous, for example the first awakening of the first movement, or the ending – listen to the orchestra drive those final bars, line upon line, section for section – Rattle impressively highlights the score’s powerful structures. When it comes to the Swan Hymn, truly – here is a very beautiful and powerful vision, in the best of Sir Simon’s fine tradition of conducting Sibelius. And the Philharmonia respond to him with clean and heartfelt performances.

One of the best single-disc budget recommendations. (Note that this is NOT from Rattle’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra cycle on EMI Classics.)

Symphonies Nos.5-7. The Oceanides. Finlandia. Tapiola.
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund EMI Forte CZS 5 68646-2
2 discs [111:53] budget-price. Symphony No.5 (30’24”) recorded 1986 (reissued 1996).

The opening movement grows from strength to strength. In this cycle, Berglund does not build to particularly large climaxes, prefering it seems to showcase architecture. Hence, although the buildup to the first climax isn’t “loud”, it is certainly still majestic. Combined, these qualities can be heard to good effect in the conclusion of the first movement – listen not just to the brass, but the detail Berglund gets from the Helsinki strings. Goodness, has anyone ever heard the 2nd violins in the opening of the finale so clearly? That’s what “transparency” means.

In Berglund’s hands, harmonic movement makes so much sense, as sections of harmony develop into further sections. This Fifth is a very fine model of symphonic development. The horns of the Swan Hymn are mellow and round, the whole beautifully flowing. Listen to how Berglund finally allows the orchestra to surge in volume at the C major climax – the horns play louder not merely for the sake of the climax as emotion, but because it is an *architectural* climax, a structural perigee in the score. The development of the final brassy passages leading to the six chords is simply superb – Berglund is not afraid to stretch a few chords here and there to get the most amazingly right-sounding effects. Symphonic thinking extraordinare. It is this kind of subtle and intelligent conducting which makes Paavo Berglund, a long-time scholar and editor of Sibelius scores, a maestro.

Symphonies 1-4 are on CZS 5 68643. If you do not own the Bournemouth cycle (above), make sure you have this.

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