Thursday, 28 June 2007

Review: The Disastrous ENO Kismet

It was clear something was up with ENO’s Kismet when choreographer Javier de Frutos was fired last week. But tonight’s press night showed just how considerable was the disaster he left behind. With one caveat: Michael Ball should be wholly disassociated from what follows. He performed superbly, and made a valiant but ultimately unavailing effort to rescue this lamentable production.

Kismet is a weak show to begin with. The faux eastern tunes are mostly recycled Borodin and lack that certain something. The book is plodding. The only way this show can be done is with big eastern spectacle, plenty of over the top dancing, beautiful, scantily clad maidens, and a principal cast with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. It should look big at all points – lush settings, a cast of thousands, looking like a Baghdad mob, a horde of dangerous but slightly camp soldiers, and a bevy of beautiful maidens. It may begin to give some idea of quite what a disaster this ENO production is if I say that to all intents and purposes it possessed none of these things.

Yes there was a cast of thousands. But I have never seen a cast of thousands so tediously doing nothing for number after number. I kid you not. Scene after scene, 20-30 chorus members wandered lackadaisically onstage, stood around, sung a few lines often feebly (the chorus only reached a decent volume once in the night during the Act 2 Finale) and then wandered off again. There was really very little point in having them there. In addition to them were three dancers (the foreign princesses) who were seriously lacking in the precision one would expect from dancers in a west end show, and a collection of half a dozen young men, probably supposed to be eunuchs, who got what little choreography there was going but whose demeanour for the vast majority of their time on stage suggested that they were still in the rehearsal studios in Walthamstow waiting for the session to start rather than in an Arabian night.

This wasted cast of thousands was abetted by the god awful set. For example, the script calls for a Hanging Gardens of Babylon type affair for the hero and heroine to meet and fall in love in. Think luscious groves, sparkling fountains, trellises, mulberry trees etc. etc. Instead, we had a flat red wall, with an open circle in the centre painted to look like some kind of fruity garland, in the centre of which stood our two lovers like planks of wood and sang.

The staging was even worse when required to accommodate the wasted cast of thousands. An excellent example of its problems was the big number in the harem in Act 2. Now remember that the ENO stage is huge, specifically designed one would think for this kind of entertainment. Now imagine that somebody had slammed a great red flat across the stage about a third of the way in. Inside this is a bathroom sized space, further reduced by benches that would not be out of place in a doctor’s waiting room, from which you descend to the remaining third of the stage by a half stage width staircase (taking up even more of that third). In other words there is hardly any of the stage for anybody to be on, just when the scene is crying out for a bit of Carry on up the Khyber style dancing. And what duly happened? Faith Prince and Michael Ball were trapped for most of one of the liveliest numbers of the show in this tiny space at the top of the staircase, while dancers writhed on the steps as if they had swallowed poison (rather than some fantasy inducing drug) and were about to expire en masse. I wanted to scream.

What then can one say for the principals. Michael Ball was the show’s major saving grace. It bears repeating that his performance is excellent, bringing vital energy to the proceedings, and he is to be pitied for being stuck in this dross for another month. Faith Prince has the weaker character and does her best with it. She gets the occasional funny line, but absolutely no help from director or choreographer (the harem scene and her Act 1 entrance were crying out for big dance numbers and on each occasion she was pinned to the side of the stage). Graeme Danby as the Wasir made the most of his biggest number, “Was I, Wasir”, which was almost funny – but needed to ham it up more all the way through. And while we’re on the subject of that number it again made you want to shoot the choreography team. I have been in many amateur theatrical productions. It is one of the easiest things in the world to make eight men prancing around in eastern costumes, holding swords, into a really funny number. You don’t have to be Einstein, and the men don’t have to be capable dancers. I repeat I have seen it done on numerous occasions, and done in a short amount of rehearsal time. In other words the last minute replacement of the choreographer is no excuse. Instead it is clear here, and elsewhere in this show, that the replacement made no attempt where an attempt might have been made. I appreciate that 70 strong casts can’t have wholly new choreography done in a day, but eight people can. But it was not to be. They walked on, they walked off. I despaired.

Somebody at ENO must have thought this was a good idea. But one can only assume the management is still under the control of fools who do not think these things through. By all means stage a show that nobody else is going to stage. But bear in mind there are almost certainly very good reasons why that is the case and act accordingly. If you are going to hire the hot new choreographer on the scene, it may be a good idea to discover whether his style will actually suit the show. It may have been permissible a year ago to take the risk, it is crazy if no one in the show went to see his Cabaret when it opened in October, and it is inexcusable if the management saw the show and still kept him working on this production. I saw Cabaret at Christmas and it was blatantly apparent that this choreographer has his own way that takes no account of setting or music (How he won an Olivier remains a mystery to me). A disaster was eminently predictable. Next we come on to the direction, by all means hire a famous American, but consider whether he has any relationship with the choreographer and, more seriously, whether he has ever had to handle a company this size (his biog and the quality of the performance suggests he has not). The production team had the presumption to take a bow. They should have been booed off the stage. I certainly tried.

I grew up going to the opera at ENO. I love the company, I love the Coliseum, and I want to see both survive. But this is a prime example of the kind of idiocies they have been prone too since firing Nicholas Payne and losing Paul Daniel. Edward Gardner has the talent to rescue them musically, it remains to be seen if the management has the capacity to be rescued. On this showing it does not look promising.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

BBC Proms 2007

Well, it's that time of the year: a couple of months or so on from the release of the official Edinburgh Festival programme and it is the turn of the BBC and their annual extravaganza. Of course, the two are slightly different beasts, Edinburgh's offering being far more diverse, the BBC's far longer.

So, what are the highlights this year? Or rather, what does it appear the highlights are going to be? More accurately, what am I, personally, going to be making an effort to listen to. Well, given the title of this blog, there is, of course, but one place to start: Prom 39 on Sunday the 12th of August, beginning at 4pm and lasting until, well, a lot later. Yes, it is the final instalment of the Proms Ring cycle and not only do we get the treat of Christine Brewer as Brunnhilde, but we get Donald Runnicles conducting. Never mind that, frustratingly, they have scheduled it over the opening weekend of the Festival, I had already left the night blank and plan to dash down to hear it (the flight is booked, though there was a brief and terrifying mix-up with them failing to post out my ticket, and apparently all the ones for this Prom, but the box office staff assured me I had one and, sure enough, it arrived a week later). Runnicles and Wagner are not a combination I am in any hurry to pass up.

But what else do we have to look forward to? Well, given last year's abandoned Beethoven 9th, it forms the curtain raiser to this year's festivities in Prom 1. The BBCSO is on duty, conducted by Jiri Belohlavek (a conductor about whom I'm a little lukewarm). More intriguing fare comes a few nights later with Prom 5, where conductor David Robertson (who so impressed with Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives at the 2005 Edinburgh festival and last year's Meistersinger) leads the BBCSO in Bernstein's second symphony and Ives' 4th along with a commission from Sam Hayden. Robertson returns a week or so later for Prom 13 including more Beethoven, this time one of my favourites: the 7th symphony (along another new commission, this time from Brett Dean). Two days later and it's time for Glydebourne's visit (your correspondent will be visiting the festival at the start of July for the Matthew Passion, work prevented me from going for Cosi). This year in Prom 15, Vladimir Jurowski brings the LPO for the fun of Verdi's Macbeth. They will have their work cut out for them to erase fond memories of Charles Mackerras's performance at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival with the SCO and Violeta Urmana.

The treats come thick and fast at this point as the very next day we get Marin Alsop's visit with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I have good memories of this combination who, until I moved north of the border, were my local orchestra and who, among other things, helped me fall in love with Mahler's 7th symphony. In Prom 16 they bring us Beethoven's Leonore no.3 overture, Barber's violin concerto and Copeland's 3rd symphony. This is swiftly followed by Prom 17, a late night programme just an hour afterwards from Richard Hickox and Collegium Musicum 90 who bring us Schubert's D950 mass. Prom 21 is an altogether odder offering, part of the Brass Day, a programme with a number of curiosities, but demanding a listen for the performance by Charles Mackerras and the BBC Philharmonic of Janacek's Sinfonietta. The only shame is that he isn't bringing us a bigger programme, particular after the fine efforts of the last few years (which have included a wonderful HMS Pinafore and some fine Mozart last year).

Monday 30th July and Prom 23 brings us two interesting things: a new commission and Esa-Pekka Salonen, about the leave the LA Philharmonic to take over at the Philharmonia, he will be leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the European premier of his own piano concerto. Annoyingly, I have just realised that, since I have just bought a ticket to hear the Jacques Loussier Trio at the Edinburgh Jazz festival that night, I shall have to set a tape. Prom 24 brings the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with their chief conductor, the talented young Ilan Volkov. He is paired with pianist Steven Osborne (the last time I heard the two together was at the 2004 Edinburgh festival where they played a wonderful Bartok concerto, Volkov followed this with a stunning Bluebeard's Castle). Their bringing Sibelius's Tapiola (which will be interesting, though in the BBC Scottish's recent Sibelius cycle Volkov didn't show a huge affinity with the composer), Britten's piano concerto and Debussy's La Mer. Two night's later the same team is back for Prom 26 and Mahler's 9th symphony (sans Osborne, obviously).

Prom 29 brings the National Youth Orchestra. This year Mark Elder is in charge and they will be playing Prokofiev's first piano concerto and Shostakovich's 7th symphony 'Leningrad'. Proms 32 and 33 bring the BBC Philharmonic under Noseda. Their first programme includes Beethoven's lovely 8th symphony (much underrated) and Schumann's second, their second features Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem and Cooke's completion of Mahler's 10th symphony (an endeavour that has never really agreed with me). Prom 38 promises to be something special. Colin Davis brings the EU Youth Orchestra to play Brahms (the tragic overture and the 3rd symphony) and then Sibelius, of whom he is one of the finest conductors there is, and the 5th symphony. This is followed by something I may have mentioned earlier: Donald Runnicles, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Christine Brewer and Wagner's Gotterdammerung. Yes, it's Prom 39. What a disgrace the BBC aren't televising it.

Prom 42 brings us more Sibelus, this time from Vanska and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Given my lukewarm response to many of their recordings, though this contrasts markedly with my reaction to Vanska in the concert hall, I'll be curious to hear how they get on with The Tempest and Symphony no.7. Another worthy Sibelian (though sadly not conducting the composer) comes a few days later for Prom 46. Sakari Oramo and the CBSO bring Elgar's The Apostles. Radio 3 recently broadcast a 3 day mini-festival of this team celebrating the Elgar anniversary with this, Gerontius and The Kingdom (which I haven't yet got round to listening to), it elicited some interesting responses, certainly it doesn't seem like Oramo's is a traditional approach. Well worth tuning in for.

A few paragraphs back I meantioned Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. By coincidence it appears this year from the Philharmonia under the baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi, their outgoing director, in Prom 49, along with a suite from Thomas Ades's opera Powder Her Face. Another new music highlight comes the next day in Prom 50 as John Adams leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme that includes Copeland and his own work, most excitingly of all the world premier of a symphony from his most recent opera Dr Atomic (the story of atomic pioneer Robert Oppenheimer). Rumour has it this is coming to ENO for the 2008 season, though I'd rather have heard the premier in San Francisco under one Donald Runnicles; but this is good news, if true. Wednesday's Prom 51 features Claudio Abbado doing one of the things he does best: Mahler, and this time the 3rd symphony. As those who've read my thoughts on the 2005 Edinburgh programme will be aware, this is one of my favourite works. Abbado has never quite pulled it off for me on disc. His most recent attempt with the Berlin Philharmonic had a near perfect reading of the first 5 movements but the finale underwhelmed. Earlier, with the Vienna Philharmonic, the finale was fair enough but the rest didn't really engage me. I'm also not wild about what I've heard from the Lucerne Orchestra (a scratch group of Berlin, Vienna and other players built around the Mahler Chamber Orchestra's core), Abbado's reading of the second symphony with them was not too memorable. But if Abbado is on form, there are few finer Mahlerians.

Great treats lie in store a few days later as Bernard Hatink brings the Concertgebouw for Prom 53 and Bruckner's 8th symphony (though, personally, I'd be more curious to hear him in something like the 3rd, 5th or 7th). Later that evening, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra perform Beethoven's second piano concerto in Prom 54. This is promising (in light of his fine survey of the concertos with Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe), but he also going to be conducting Haydn's 102nd symphony and it will be interesting to see how he makes the jump. Prom 55 brings more from Hatink and the Concertgebouw and this time the real treat: Wagner. Haitink's Wagner is rather special, there is some lovely music in his recording of the Ring which is, at times, revelatory. What a shame that it's spoilt by the Brunnhilde of Eva Marton. Here we get the prelude to act I of Parsifal and the Good Friday music as well as the prelude and liebestod from Tristan, along with some Debussy.

Prom 59 features another orchestra with whom Haitink has been closely associated in recent years: the LSO. They come under the baton of their new music director Valery Gergiev playing a programme of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. It will be interesting listening: their recent CD cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies didn't always have the fire that was present in the finest readings. Of course, more interesting will be to hear how he fares next year when his programme seems to rely less on Russian composers. He is apparently doing all the Mahler symphonies - I'd be going if I were based in London. Another big European orchestra comes a few days later for a pair of concerts: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under their director Mariss Jansons (fresh from their appearances in Edinburgh). In Prom 60 gives us Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra and Sibelius's second symphony and Prom 62 is Honegger's 3rd symphony and Beethoven's 9th, making its second appearance this year, and this is surely the one the smart money is on.

Prom 64 brings Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a commission made for the night's soloist, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, as well as Mahler's 1st symphony. What a shame we aren't having this from Jansons who is a master of it. Belohlavek's Mahle hasn't really grabbed mer (he played a rather disappointing 9th at the 2005 Edinburgh festival). More promising is Proms Saturday Matinee 4, which is an all Britten programme from Edward Gardner, who has recently been doing fine things at ENO, and the Nash Ensemble. That evening comes the first of two programmes from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In Prom 64 they play Ives, Strauss and Shostakovich, in Prom 65 they bring the last Mahler of the year, the 7th. I recently acquired their disc of the 5th and found it rather disappointingly dull, so it will be interesting to see they get on with this far trickier work. My final highlights are the two programmes from Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic. Prom 66 features Schubert's playful, Mozartian, 5th symphony and Bruckner's 4th (which was probably the highlight of his CD cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic). Prom 68 is more adventurous featuring the music of Bartok, Ligeti, Enescu and Kodaly.

There are doubtless some who wonder why the next three nights (featuring the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Chailly and the Boston Symphony under Levine) aren't getting a proper mention. The truth is that I have never cared much for either conductor, Levine is, I feel, particularly overrated: I don't know anyone who can make Wagner duller. I am not plugging the last night either; I'm not a fan. It will be interesting to see how Belohlavek copes, certainly he can't manage as badly as Slatkin used to (famous last words).

Of course, the list is far from exhaustive. To find that you must trawl through the unfriendly Proms website (or lay down £6 for the printed programme, rather a lot given the proportion taken up by advertising). There are a number of fine and intriguing things that I haven't mentioned, but the above is what I shall be making an effort to hear (or at least tape, as on many of the nights I'll be otherwise engaged with the small festivals we have up here).

Friday, 15 June 2007

Discography: Harvey Milk

Our survey of the recordings of Runnicles continues with the world premier, and possibly the sole, recording of Stewart Wallace's Harvey Milk. For those not of San Francisco, the opera tells the story of the eponymous Milk, a City Supervisor and San Francisco's first openly gay elected official who was assassinated by one of his colleagues (this isn't really giving away the ending, in a circular piece of writing we get the assassination at the beginning).

The work is engaging from the guttural opening bars. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly for a work written so recently, an unashamedly modern piece. Listen expecting soaring arias and lyrical melodies and you will be disappointed. But fans of 20th Century music and opera should be right at home. The orchestration features an eclectic mix, particularly so far as the percussion is concerned. Wallace's score is highly atmospheric (after the opening prologue) as he vividly conjures first the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera and then Central Park at midnight. He isn't always this successful though, and there are moments when the score seems to veer into musical comedy. The other problem with the first act is how much it jumps about: from the assassination to the Met, to Central Park, to 'Harvey's walk-in closet', to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, which lends something of a disjointed feeling. Almost as if there were too many ideas they couldn't bear to cut. The score surprises too - there are one or two sweepingly operatic moments. Addressing the quality of Runnicles' interpretation is harder. The work is new to me and I have no recording to contrast it with (if one even exists). But he does seem to bring out plenty of details and as ever is a fine accompanist, lending the right weight and support beneath his singers. And I think that to hold a score so bursting with ideas together can be regarded as no mean feat, this is especially true of the uprising that rounds off the first act. Indeed, listening, it made me wish I'd been able to hear his San Francisco production of Messiaen's St Francois (or, at the very least, that someone had had the sense to record it).

There are some strong performances including the Milk of Roberth Orth, his lover Scott (Bradley Williams) and Dan White (Raymond Very), Milk's eventual assassin. Again, in the second act, there is a vividness, as Milk makes his first, unsuccessful, run for office. The score ranges wide (and, impressively, this doesn't jar). The script is fine enough, although fairly crude in how it brings out the issues. Then again, this is perhaps another symptom of how much story they have decided to fold into two hours. Still, there are more beautiful librettos: Michael Korie is no W H Auden. The score remains impressive though - no more so than with a chorus of whistles andnd the contrasting political campaigns of Milk and White grate powerfully against one and other to bring the act's climax.

Only in the third act do I feel the work seriously falters. We now find ourselves watching Milk as a somewhat oily politician at City Hall. It isn't that it's bad per se, simply that the wonderful vividness that marked the first two acts seems to have vanished. (Anyone who things politics cannot be vivid needs only to listen to Il Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlos.) But the act picks up as it progresses. It makes Milk out to be a distinctly less than perfect, and in some ways rather unpleasant man: he first seems to go out of his way to be the swing vote overriding White's nimbyism and then, after White resigns in a fit of pique, as he threatens the mayor (in a distinctly Inquisitorial manner) to prevent him from allowing White to change his mind. The work's powerful climax sees first White's murder of the mayor followed by his assassination of Milk, the latter made the more chilling by being intercut with his tape recorded political will.

All in all, a fine and enjoyable new opera and one that would be more than interesting to see in the flesh.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Review: Deborah Voigt in Recital

As she commenced her encores Deborah Voigt announced that the evening’s recital was her first time in London since the infamous incident at Covent Garden involving a little black dress. Perhaps nerves were the explanation for Voigt’s indifferent performance.

First it is necessary to give some idea of manner and audience response. Voigt played the diva to a “t”. She strode across the Barbican stage with hauteur, and her gesture acknowledging the applause bore more than a passing resemblance to the royal wave. Because it is a long way from center stage to door, and because, like most recitals the song groups were small, there seemed to be almost more processing than singing. This was compounded during the second group of songs – 5 little known (and one can see why) songs by Verdi. After either the first or second, almost before the last note had sounded from the piano, a conspicuous “brava” resounded from somewhere in the stalls. Next thing you know the whole audience is applauding. And from then on there was applause after every song.

Of course the programme notes were partly to blame – no instruction to reserve applause for the end of groups. But Voigt, or at the start of the second half a member of the staff, could have requested this. But no, she seemed to milk it much as she milked the procession from door to center stage. These atmospheric factors further compromised an already weak attempt to build up a sense of narrative in the songs.

As to the character of that weak attempt there was the problem of characterisations and the more fundamental problems with the voice. In terms of characterisation the performance was dull. Between Mozart, Verdi and Respighi, and between the individual songs there was little appreciable difference. One did not feel drawn into a story. The Strauss group which ended the first half was a slight improvement, but more because it showcased the best aspect of the voice, rather than because the performance had really significantly improved.

Vocally, Voigt has all the hallmarks of a singer who has done too much Strauss and Wagner. The result is that her main asset is a powerful top range, but the rest of the voice is verging on a wreck. She could either sing full out at the top, or with a kind of a strain in the middle or inaudibly at the bottom. Phrases sounded snatched, breathless, and more than once one doubted the tuning. Despite having the music in front of her, and even when singing in English, the wrong words were sung, in such a way as to suggest Voigt’s main concern was to get through the phrase without disaster and with at least 90% of the right notes – but further destroying any coherent attempt to convey characterisation and narrative.

Only towards the end of the second half was there real improvement. Voigt finished the programme with songs by Amy Beach and Leonard Bernstein. Characterisation was better here, though vocal problems persisted. But in the end just as Violetta Urmana in a similarly sized venue in Edinburgh was in a totally different league in Strauss, so Dawn Upshaw is in a totally different league when it comes to show tunes. Voigt tried, and something of a personality appeared, but in the end her Bernstein personas were still all too much of a muchness. The improvement was not enough to lift the feelings of boredom and irritation created by the rest of the recital.

It would be nice to believe that Voigt may be one of those singers more suited to the stage than the concert hall, where at least those vocal problems might be a little more masked by the orchestra. On this showing, she should certainly retire from the latter. This was not however the view of the London audience, who applauded with wild enthusiasm.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Osmo Vanska conducts Sibelius

A little while back, I posted an instalment of my Survey of the symphonies of Sibelius over at the Naim forum. So, here is the next.

This is by far the biggest survey under discussion here (though, in truth, the portion I will discuss is of about the same size as most of the other sets mentioned). Osmo Vanska's readings with his Lahti Symphony Orchestra come on the BIS label and while they can be had as a cycle, or separately, they are now available in a 15 disc box titled The Essential Sibelius with much else besides. Though, perhaps slightly annoyingly, this is by no means the complete Vanska (he has recorded two versions of both the 5th Symphony and the Violin concerto, the alternates are both absent here, as are a number of other works). However, we do get the seven symphonies and Kullervo (and a few other things which I won't really cover). The non-Vanska recordings I won't really address either (mainly because they aren't the symphonies or works I know well enough).

To begin at the beginning (even if it has to wait until disc 6), this is the first set thus far to contain Sibelius's first symphonic effort: the Kullervo Symphony (well, excluding the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert performances). It's a shame, as it's a wonderful piece: how fascinating to have heard Bernstein, Barbirolli or Oramo attempt it... (I suppose we may still hear the latter). And, in many ways, this is the highlight of the set. It feels so very right from the opening bars onwards, which are chilling rather than frozen and so beautifully played it whisks me straight back to the concert hall, the bass and wind playing is especially fine. As there was then, Vanksa gives a significant dynamic range (and choosing a volume that allows the quietest moments to be audible without infuriating the neighbours is not altogether simple). But, for this work at least, that is largely forgivable. The detail of the textures is very good as is the way he seems to layer the orchestra. The main theme emerges only subtly, but its emergence at the close of the first movement is wonderfully majestic. The beautiful slow movement is, if anything, more captivating both in terms of the drama he brings and the quality of the orchestral playing. Vanska highlights the icy tones underneath throughout and there is a real power to some of the big chords, and a nice contrast between these and the softer moments. The sleigh bells provide a vivid opening to the third movement and the choir, when they enter, are every bit as fine as they were in the concert hall (these are the same Helsinki University Chorus we had in Glasgow). That said the balance is not quite perfect and they are a little more distant than I would prefer. Kullervo and his Sister are okay, though the latter is not quite so scathing as I would like in her rejections of him (she improves as the movement progresses). But, to be honest, they are rather upstaged by conductor, orchestra and choir (but I think this is one of those works where that is okay). But the stars here are the choir, who really should be heard by any who gets the chance: their precision and control are wonderful - no more so than at the movements turning point when Kullervo beds his sister (as they do in these sorts of folk myths). This, followed by the orchestra's raw power, that of Kullervo's reaction and his sister's chilling response is really quite special. Vanska displays a real lightness of touch in the fourth movement. He judges the textures well - the rumbling drums in the background, for example. But Kullervo goes to war with gusto, the percussion playing throughout is pretty special. The choir open the finale with the incredible softness of which they are capable. Both choir and orchestra are fine thoughout and quite staggering in the final moments. However, perhaps inevitably, it is not such a perfect experience as in the concert hall. How could it be? Either way, this is a very fine disc, and an excellent introduction to the work (and one that I believe is available separately). Looking back, I realise I haven't mentioned tempi at all. I suppose that's because they all just feel right. At 80 minutes this work is quite a bit slower than Davis's more recent LSO Live effort (which I find a trifle rushed) and shorter than his earlier account. In other words, it feels just right to me.

The next disc (actually disc 1 in the box) contains the pairing of the first and fourth symphonies, and after Kullervo, it seemed this might be the cycle to beat. The first symphony is given a wonderfully soft opening. There is beautiful wind playing but the entry of the strings, one of my favourite moments in all Sibelius's writing, is not as electric as some. This is a frantic reading, but Vanska brings out a lot in the orchestration, there is a real menace bubbling beneath the surface throughout and a fierce edge to the strings. The andante is less successful. Vanska didn't really allow the music to breath sufficiently in the first movement and the flaw is much more critical here. On the other hand, the approach is well suited to the scherzo: briskly played with a nice lightness of touch. The finale beings well. There is a chill to the strings and a nice sweep. Vanska gives a lively and energetic reading and brings out plenty of depth in the orchestration. He builds weight and a wonderful momentum towards the close and, unlike Bernstein, does not allow it to flag. Nice enough, and certainly not without its moments, but it fails to live up to the promise of Kullervo. The fourth is altogether more successful (indeed, arguably Vanska's extreme dynamic range comes into its own here). A dark, almost leaden (in a good way) opening. Slow, with a real sadness to the playing. Yet nicely lyrical too and Vanska shapes the themes beautifully. Indeed, he gives the work a character that calls to mind Mahler's 9th. The orchestra play superbly. The second movement is lighter and more charming in tone but there is still a weight to the strings and some of that frantic edge that was so strong in his reading of the first symphony. The largo is, once again, marked by lovely wind playing. Again, the tempo is slow and he retains the same dark tone. Vanska really brings out the recurring themes in a way that makes me think this is one of the most magical of Sibelius's movements. He leads into the finale more gently than I would have expected (though with a near-perfect transition) and steadfastly refuses to build up a momentum giving the work a very modern feel and fitting it much better with the first 3 movements than in some readings. But Vanska becomes frantic again towards the end and with a final note even more clipped than in it often is.

This is followed by a coupling of the second and third symphonies. The second begins delicately with a moderate tempo. The orchestral playing is of the same high standard as the rest of this set and they produce some wonderful tones. The pace quickens as the movement progresses, but he doesn't rush the big climaxes. The dynamic contrasts here are less severe than elsewhere in the cycle. Vanska builds a nice momentum to the movement's close. The andante is marked by some fine pizzacato and wonderfully melancholic wind playing. This is not a sunny reading by a long shot and there is also a return of the extreme dynamic contrasts that were absent in the first movement. It is lyrical but with less sweep and less momentum than Vanska is capable of. But his frantic nature does return, especially in the timpani, before reverting to tragic lyricism for a nice close. There is a brisk, dancing tempo to the vivacissimo. The same orchestral tone and lyricism but even more sweep. He stirs up a wonderful frenzy and then grandeur leading into the finale. Which has a sweep to rival the best (and lightness of touch and clarity too). There is some sunniness to the reading here, but plenty more darkness as well. He builds a powerful, deliberate momentum to a magnificent finish. After his concert performance, I had high hopes for the 3rd. But, inevitably, the electricity of that occasion isn't quite here. There is a nice sweep to the opening, but the music doesn't seem to dance the way it did in Glasgow (and not even really recall it). But in some respects (given some of the extremes there), in a CD this is not altogether that bad a thing. And as the movement progresses he soon falls into something of the swift delicacy I recall and he keeps a wonderful pulse ticking throughout. Again, though I hardly need repeat it, the wind playing is excellent. The lyricism of the 4th returns for a fine close. The deceptive tempo and apparent gentleness of the slow movement hides an uneasy feeling. Very beautifully played, just shy of hauntingly, though with particularly extreme dynamics. Vanska manages the transition into the finale okay and starts with slower tempo than I would have expected. He builds a fine momentum and there is certainly no shortage of power to the climaxes. But he loses something of the pulse midway through. To be sure he is better recorded than Davis on LSO Live, but with much less punch.

The 5th symphony begins majestically with nicely rounded phrasing. Vanska takes a relatively brisk tempo and the orchestra play wonderfully. Once again, though, dynamics are extreme. The reading, to me, lacks sweep and he doesn't build the momentum as well as he might. But the close of the first movement is particularly nice, and there is a great depth to the orchestral sound, the closing bars are especially sensuous. The andante that follows is not very slow, indeed, I wish he would hang about a little at times to savour some more of the beauty of the score, but the playing is nicely delicate. The transition into the finale is very poorly judged, so much so that it almost feels like an editing error. Vanska is very, very quick, but the orchestra keeps up fine. But that doesn't really matter, as the pace is too fast and something is lost. He does slow up a little as the main theme emerges but it lacks grandeur (this is more glaring given how fine the work's opening bars were in this regard). And, as a result, what should be a magnificent climax falls rather flat. All in all, a disappointing reading and probably my low-point of the cycle. Of the fillers, En Saga is very fine. Finlandia is nice but lacks the excitement of Oramo or Barbirolli. Pohjola's Daughter and Valse Triste are both good too, though the dynamic range in the latter is especially pronounced.

The sixth is better and opens at a middling tempo, beautifully (and very quietly) played and Vanska really brings out the different musical lines. The pace picks up (in line with what one might expect from this cycle), but I would prefer a little more lyricism. The winds are, once again, excellent and there is a nice chill to the strings. The transition to the second movement is poor (also something of a hallmark of this set - admittedly this is not strictly a transition in the way some of the movements are, but the way this ends, and the next beings, sit uneasily with each other). The second movement as a whole doesn't really work, as Vanska takes it somewhere between edgy and beauty. There is a nice spring to the vivace, but in some ways it is a little rushed. He brings the third movement to a fine, frenzied close, but it comes out of nowhere. The finale has some lovely tones but is again rushed. Dynamic contrasts are again extreme. The orchestra plays wonderfully throughout, bringing a real depth to the climaxes. And yet, that extra something is missing and he doesn't quite seem to judge the end right. The opening swagger of the seventh is particularly pronounced, especially the basses. Vanska takes the opening andante relatively slowly. Again the playing is fine and unlike so often elsewhere, he actual seems to savour the score and build themes. There is a wonderful flow (no Mahler 9 syndrome here). Unfortunately, the trombones are not prominently enough balanced and the quicker moments (as so often on this set) feel really rushed. But when he slows up there is a magnificent majesty. And so the work continues, lurching unsatisfyingly from slowly majestic to over-hurried. The feeling of journey's end at the work's close is very satisfying, and yet at the same time strangely uneasy since it doesn't feel like he's taken us that far and the closing bars seem to come out of nowhere. The disc rounds off with a very fine reading of Tapiola.

Of the other works, the violin concerto is okay, but didn't seem anything special to me. The Wood Nymph is very good but the Lemminkainen suite is rather patchy. The box also contains some of Jarvi's recordings, some of which are nice enough to have me wondering if I should add his set to this thread. But then Karelia was very poor, feeling almost comically jocular. And elsewhere in works such as The Tempest or Pelleas and Melisande he is just rather dull.

There are still five or so discs (including one or two smaller works from Vanksa and plenty of choral and chamber music), I have yet to explore on this set. However, it has been something of a disappointment. At its finest (Kullervo, and to a lesser extent the 4th), it is exceptional, but elsewhere it doesn't really live up to the promise of those moments. It makes me wonder if Vanska is one of those artists who just doesn't translate as well into the recording studio as opposed to the concert hall, certainly I will be listening with interest to their Prom (all Sibelius, including the 7th). However, even given its relative cheapness, I'm not really left feeling this set was great value for money. But the Kullervo (available separately) is well worth seeking out as, probably, is the 4th.