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Sibelius: Symphonies 2 & 5 - Osmo Vänskä

Sibelius: Symphonies 2 & 5 - Osmo Vänskä

BIS  BIS-SACD-1986

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 43, Symphony No. 5 in E flat major Op. 82

Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä (conductor)


Now, some 15 years after the appearance of his previous cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies, Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä has returned to the works in recording, and with his Minnesota players he has recorded the first disc in a new cycle. The Sibelius expert Robert Layton, in his introduction to the programme, presents the Second Symphony as ‘the symphony by which many music lovers find their way to Sibelius’, and in his discussion of the Fifth he quotes the composer himself, in a comment about symphonic form: ‘a river with innumerable tributaries feeding it before it broadens majestically and flows into the sea’.

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Review by John Miller - March 5, 2012

It's over a decade since Vänskä's Sibelius cycle with the Lahti orchestra was completed. A new one begins with this disc. It has a happy pairing of the Second with the Fifth, since they have musical features in common, and are arguably the most popular of the set. Indeed, the Second Symphony is often cited as the one which led listeners to the composer. That was certainly true for me; I first heard it at Hallé concerts with Sir John Barbirolli, who is still regarded as one of the symphony's finest exponents. It certainly captured me, as did Barbirolli's inspirational Fifth. Sadly, we can never quite recapture the intensity of feeling aroused when encountering a piece of music for the first time.

There appear to be two main reasons for this new cycle; Vänskä has been re-thinking his approach to the symphonies, playing them in concert to a new public, and BIS has been keen to record a new set with high resolution multichannel sound.

Turning to the sound first, the experience gained in recording the Vänskä Beethoven cycle in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis has been gainfully employed. The BIS engineers have produced a simply beautiful, realistic,airy, wonderfully detailed and three-dimensional multichannel sound, with a stereo track as good as one could expect. The booklet now declares the original format, in this case 96K/24bit. This recording is completely in harmony with the music, unobtrusively conveying the full experience of music-making. Within a huge dynamic range, I loved the orchestra's truly soft playing (complete with audible body of tone), the pizzicati of cellos and violas in the Second Symphony's second movement - you can hear the full 'twang' on every string - and the Minnesota orchestra's brass chorus with its thrilling Sibelius blend and wonderful precision.

My first play-through of the Second Symphony revealed some unusual textual features which caught the ear. after the second subject, woodwind lines without tie-lines were played so detached that it sound like the true staccato of the first subject's tune. The tympani sounded to be played with quite hard sticks (as in the Beethoven cycle). Especially in the slow movement, a brief fusillade of timps was let loose, not sanctioned in the score's dynamic instructions. I investigated other reservations by comparing the new recording with Vänskä's Lahti performance, amongst others.

Timing-wise, there are some interesting differences: Lahti 9'24, 14'29, 5'57, 15'16 and Minneapolis 9'11, 16'28, 5'47, 14'14 - with Kajanus (1930) for reference at 8'25, 13'02, 5'23, 12'32. While the Lahti and Minnesota first and third movements are little changed in speed, the new second movement is fully 2' longer, and the finale about a minute longer. In passing, note that Kajanus's speeds are mostly very much faster than any common today. As he worked with Sibelius and was his most trusted interpreter, we can imagine that his performances are close to the sound that Sibelius had in his head when composing. At these speeds, the whole emotional content of the movements is quite different, for example in the first movement of the Second Symphony, Kajanus' true allegretto is lilting, lively and joyous. However, that is another story!

Vänskä's first movement in Symphony 2 somehow looses the sense of freshness and organic growth which informed the earlier recording. There is a sense all the way through this new version of over-thinking and careful planning rather than spontaneous inspiration of the players. The very slow second movement is much darker overall than before, which is interesting, but very slow-burning. With the structural pauses marked by Sibelius being taken at this slow pace, the sectional nature of the movement becomes very obvious and disconnected. There is a lack of flow and real passion in this movement, which really is the heart of this symphony, generally seen to refer to Finland's painful thrall under the Russian occupation. The expansive finale is also dampened in effect by slowish speeds, making what Kajanus projects as elation after the struggle for Freedom become simply grandiose rather than noble. However, thanks to the body of sound produced, the final uplifting bars still have some impact.

Fortunately, the Fifth Symphony is given an excellent performance, much closer to that in the earlier cycle (Timings: Lahti 13'30, 8'47, 9'27; Minnesota 13'13, 8'35, 8'54 - compare Kajanus/LSO 11'39, 8'13, 9'15). There is more rhythmic flexibility and spontaneity, a lovely set of variations in the slow movement and the finale builds tension very well up to a blazing climax. However, the gaps between the final famous irregularly placed chords seemed to be rather augmented, breaking the tension. Kajanus shows exactly how these chords should be placed, so that one can "think through" the silences to the final chord. This ending is a wonderful coup de theâtre on Sibelius' part, but it rarely gets done properly.

While I certainly had reservations about the second symphony, these are such that relative newcomers to Sibelius will have no worries about acquiring this new disc. Established Sibelians will already be indissolubly wedded to their favourite version of both symphonies, but should hear this disc at least for its deeply satisfying engineering, which gives luminous access to even the deepest layers of Sibelius' orchestration. Despite the caveats, I really enjoyed listening to this disc, and will do so in the future. But if only Kajanus could have had the BIS engineers to record his performances...

Reference:
An enlightening discussion between Colin Davis and Osmo Vänskä on their approaches to performing Sibelius can be found on pp. 229-242, The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, ed. Daniel M. Grimley, Cambridge University Press 2004.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Review by Graham Williams - March 24, 2012

This is the first issue in Osmo Vänskä's new Sibelius symphony cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra in what promises to be a slightly protracted release schedule, as the cycle will not be completed until 2015 the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth.

Starting with what are probably Sibelius's two most popular symphonies was an excellent idea, as it gives newcomers a splendid introduction to this conductor's style of interpretation of the Finnish master's symphonic output, while more committed Sibelians will be able to hear how these performances compare with the array of alternative versions currently available on CD and SACD.

Vänskä's invaluable earlier cycle with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, taped over 15 years ago, was revelatory; so perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a re-visiting of these works to reveal much in the way of fresh insights. This time round, however Vänskä has the benefit of superb multi-channel SACD sound (96kHz / 24bit) that provides an unrivalled degree of vividness. And though the dynamic range of the recording is very wide, it nevertheless enables every orchestral instrument to be heard with the utmost clarity even in the quietest passages. Furthermore, Vänskä now has at his disposal one of America's finest orchestras whose players respond to the conductor's direction with unfailingly accurate and polished playing. The contrast with the lean and rather chilly sound of the Lahti orchestra is evident in both symphonies.

It is Vänskä's performance of the Second Symphony that is likely to divide opinion most amongst listeners. Vänskä often seems unwilling to allow the music to flow naturally, and throughout his performance one's attention is drawn to points the conductor is making rather than the music itself. For example, the symphony's first movement starts gently at a beautifully chosen tempo and unfolds convincingly, but the string passage (4'39” - 4'50”) is delivered with a deliberation that seems almost perverse. In the second movement, marked 'Andante, ma rubato', the adoption of extremely measured tempi give this movement an even more episodic aspect than usual; though it must be said that one is captivated by the craggy splendour of the orchestral playing and the crispness of the recorded sound, while at the same time wishing for more forward momentum. After an exhilarating 'Vivacissimo' with its tender middle section lovingly phrased, Vänskä's 'Finale' builds impressively but as the movement progresses a lack of spontaneity verging on mannerism again raises concerns though the final peroration is absolutely thrilling. In the final analysis one is left pondering the question as to how often can a conductor revisit a familiar work on record without eventually substituting engaging innovation with excessive premeditation.

The Fifth Symphony is given a more straightforward and totally assured performance that illustrates Vänskä's masterly control of both Sibelian symphonic structure and wide orchestral dynamics (Try from 5'53” in the opening movement to experience the way this conductor achieves his breathtaking 'pianissimos'). Once again the magnificent playing of the Minnesota Orchestra is a great reason to acquire this SACD, but Vänskä's compelling interpretation of this symphony should also place it high on one's acquisition list.

Copyright © 2012 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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