INKPOT#68 CLASSICAL MUSIC FEATURE: SIBELIUS The First Symphony – Recordings Survey
An InktroductionRecordings Survey Part 1 | Part 2
by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcasetm
19 Apr 2000 (cosmetic adjustment)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Sakari (Naxos) | Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy (Decca)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Vänskä | Hall Orchestra/Barbirolli (EMI/CfP)
London Symphony Orchestra/Davis (RCA) | Oslo Philharmonic/Jansons (EMI)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Davis (Philips) | New York Philharmonic/Bernstein (Sony)
Slovak Philharmonic/Leaper (Naxos) | Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan (EMI)
Symphony Nos.1 & 3
Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peteri Sakari
[74:46] budget-price. Symphony No.1 (38’07”) recorded Dec 1997 (released 1998).
From the volcanic land of Bjrk Naxos launches its new (the second after Adrian Leaper’s, also good) cycle of Sibelius Symphonies. For a company not well-known for repeat recordings of the same music, I can only say this bodes well for the composer – and what a smashing start this is!
Led by their new and able Finnish director Peteri Sakari, the Iceland Symphony (who have previously recorded some Sibelius for Chandos) provide very tightly etched and sharply responsive account of the music, combining precision which never becomes rigid, with strength of conviction and energy. The result is a reading which feels confident and highly charged but never over-indulges, best heard in the first and third movements.
The Icelandic engineers deserve praise too – though overall the sound occasionally sounds a bit lacking in body, the orchestral picture is as detailed as a snowflake. One detail which caught my ear is the double-shot from the woodwind at 10’36” in the first movement, a part too often underemphasised in other recordings. The harp, usually not done any sonic justice in this symphony, glitters. All this for less than S$10, with an equally fine reading of the Third Symphony to boot! A very very desirable disc. (Excerpt from the full review)
DECCA Double 455 402-2 (Complete Symphonies Vol.1)
2 discs [143:38] budget-price. Symphony No.1 (39’06”) recorded 1981 (reissued 1998).
Many listeners have acknowledged the more “Slavic”, warmer tone of Ashkenazy’s Decca cycle – no problem for the First Symphony! The opening clarinet solo is already moulded with personality, and indeed this reading of the Symphony bursts forth with brilliance and purpose – life. The musical lines are drawn with great beauty and splendour, and the layered music, eg. of the Andante is woven with sumptious tone-body and much atmosphere – speaking of which, Decca’s 1980s sound is one of the best balanced. Everything is nicely in place – listen for the quiet pedals of winds and softly rolling timpani, crucial components in the transitions between fast and slow sections, which Ash handles much more convincingly than Colin Davis’ reading above. Indeed, the Philharmonia Orchestra inject life and push into the music; individual phrases connect the entire Symphony with a coherence not often heard.
Symphonies Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7 with Tapiola and En Saga are on Double Decca 455 405-2.
BIS CD-861 [75:32] full-price. Symphony No.1 (35’04”) recorded Oct 1996 (released 1997).
This version from the Lahti/BIS cycle is one of the fastest ever on record, clocking in at 35’04”. There is a powerful gusting sensation of momentum throughout. Whatever the case, their performance is one of amazing unity – at no point does the energy let up. Phrasing suffers a bit under this hectic treatment, and listeners familiar with the work may find it doesn’t give the themes much space for characterisation.
Osmo Vänskä’s direction of the orchestra is acutely well-timed and executed, dramatic without being overblown. Couple this with the wide dynamic range and sonic sensitivity of the BIS recording, and you get an open arena for pin-point precision music-making. At first the speed did disturb me, but after listening through for over a year, I found that it is the speed which makes this such a unified, convincing and fresh reading. As far as symphonic unity is concerned, this is one of the best examples of how it can be done differently from traditional interpretations. (Excerpt from the full review)
Symphony Nos.1 & 3
The Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
EMI Classics for Pleasure CD-CFP 5022
[74:46] budget-price. Symphony No.1 (41’50”) recorded Dec 1966 (reissued 1996).
Sir John Barbirolli is widely respected for his few recordings of Sibelius. Many swear by his Second Symphony, which has appeared on many smaller labels. I first heard this version of the First on LP, and it was quite a stunning experience.
Sir John provides a steady and powerful reading. Occasionally the somewhat blocky phrasing is a little distracting but Barbirolli effectively combines orchestral power with his sense of the music’s beauty and grandeur. And to this point I must single out the Hall Orchestra’s harpist – throughout the Symphony, she/he provides beautiful tone (where other harpists often sound thin and prickly) and musical playing. Sometimes, when it is resounding in exposed, quiet passages, the music sounds really modern. The Hall strings are veritable masters of diminuendo.
The first movement is a vision of splendour – the crafting of the music is utterly convincingly, his trumpeteers bellow out their majestic triplet with magnificence. As for beauty, listen to the fragile beauty of the hushed opening of the Andante – breathtakingly tender, the winds mistily floating, the strings sighing (listen for the diminuendo), with harp strumming in langorous tranquility – I almost cried when I first heard this. What did Sibelius see or experience to write this heavenly music?
The British treatment makes the Scherzo and Finale a touch on the slow side, but they are very steady. I miss the scherzic element and the rush (heard in the fast section of the Andante), but I am in complete admiration for Sir John’s earnest, intelligent and sensible direction. In the final analysis, the Orchestra responds very convincingly and the music feels just right.
RCA Victor Red Seal (BMG Classics) 09026-68183-2
[77:40] full-price. Symphony No.1 (39’34”) recorded in 1994 (1996 release)
Sir Colin takes a slightly slower pace than Vänskä (BIS) in the first movement, and he is more immediately convincing in the moulding of phrases: praise must go to the handling of the powerful jagged trumpet theme [track 1: 3’10” and 8’57”] – I have rarely heard it performed with such passion, drive and musical phrasing.
At times the slower pace makes the music brim with power, but often it just seems too draggy for me. In the Finale for example, Sir Colin’s performance is again very traditional. The fast sections are effective but lacks the sense of rush found in say the Karajan or Iceland Symphony version. The slow sections work well, as in the yearning, angst-ridden slow melody near the end, bursting with emotion. It is here that the intensity of the London strings come across better than the cooler tones of the Lahti Symphony.
Indeed this is generally a very safe recommendation, whereas the more characterful Vänskä reading may shock some. Conversely, for an incorrigible nutcase like me, I don’t feel the urge to listen to this version since it has nothing much which is interpretatively interesting or insightful. (Excerpt from full review)
Naxos can be found or ordered from Borders (Wheelock Place). For BIS, try HMV (The Heeren). EMI and RCA records are readily available from the above as well as Sing Discs (Raffles City) and Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City).
True to his name, the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase is still not sick of the First Symphony.
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