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.