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Sibelius: Symphonies 1 & 3 - Ashkenazy

Sibelius: Symphonies 1 & 3 - Ashkenazy

Exton  OVCL-00279

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39, Symphony No. 3 in C major Op. 52, Rakastava Op. 14

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - June 10, 2008

Vladimir Ashkenazy is a brave man to contribute another complete Sibelius cycle to a market in which there are already many fine full sets. His first cycle, for Decca (1978-1983), came at the dawn of the digital age, and the new cycle in DSD was set down in 2006-2007 (Ashkenazy was 70 in 2007). More or less the same set of tone poems and fillers are included as in the original set, which is still available at bargain price and is very well-regarded for interpretation, superb playing of the Philharmonia and its (then) state-of-the-art recording.

Having heard the new cycle, I can't say in general that it is a great improvement on the old one. With a few exceptions, his approach is broader, but there has been loss of some of the youthful vitality and raw energy which distinguished much of the earlier cycle. The Philharmonia, it has to be said, are consistently finer than the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra - not that the latter are bad or lacking in commitment. The Decca recordings are still resplendent, with wide frequency and dynamic ranges: they sound excellent on a surround system when processed with a Dolby PLII Music chip.

In the following reviews, although I have compared the new cycle with many others, I shall confine myself mainly to referencing those comparisons available on SACD, in the present case Neeme Järvi (Sibelius: 7 Symphonies - Järvi) and Colin Davis (Sibelius: Symphonies 3 & 7 - Colin Davis) for Symphony 3.

Both the First and Second symphonies are regarded as being Romantic works, but they are also Nationalistic in character, Sibelius being one of the most politically minded composers of his era. The First is also often said to have been inspired by Tchaikovsky, but this may be mere coincidence of a common musical language. It was not, of course, really Sibelius' first symphony; it only was numbered thus after his withdrawal of the Kullervo Symphony Op. 7. Full of human emotion it may be, but at the same time, Sibelius was beginning his struggle with the logic of his music in terms of developing the old classical forms of the symphony - his "struggle with God" as he often put it. This led him into the Modernist path.

One curious effect of our retrospective view of Romanticism is that in general, music tempi since the C19th have generally been slowing, as we seemingly need to wallow somewhat in our retrospection. Sibelius, like Elgar, was present at the time the gramophone was being developed, and thus able to preserve contemporary interpretations for posterity. In 1930 Sibelius was given a grant from the Finnish Government to make permanent records of his symphonies on records. He chose Robert Kajanus, a friend and a trusted interpreter for the task. Kajanus came to London and set down only four symphonies before he died. The Kajanus interpretations show us a very different Sibelian world, brimming with vital and elemental energy, fantasy and shamanic mystery, all at the pace of the rather sparing metronome markings made by Sibelius - considerably speedier than virtually all modern interpretations. They are a revelation to even the most hardened lovers of Sibelius' music. Ashkenazy, Davis and Järvi, like most modern interpreters, simply don't come up to this standard, although Anthony Collins came close in the 1950's, together with Thomas Beecham, another great protagonist of Sibelius.

The First Symphony was one of the most successful in Ashkenazy's Decca cycle, and although the timings are broadly similar, the new recording leaves behind some of the granite of the earlier one for a more consciously Romantic approach. In the first movement, Kajanus drags us headlong after the chilly clarinet solo's introduction into a dramatic landscape full of raw power and energy, full of contrasts, both tonal and dynamic. This is like a wild ride, one clings on for dear life. Ashkenazy, however, gives us a much more laid back and lyrical account, deeply Romantic but nowhere nearly as sharply depicted or as powerful as Kajanus (at 10:09 compared with Ashkenazy's 11:17). With Kajanus, the players are fully on their mettle in his unstoppable river of sound and their attack is formidable, as is the sheer bravura of their playing. Ashkenazy's players aren't really challenged by his smoother reading, which sounds soft-edged in comparison.

The First's Scherzo is a tongue-in-cheek application of the Bruckner style if ever there was one. Kajanus and Anthony Collins play this magnificently; they generate the excitement of rapidly thrumming bass rhythms and superbly articulated wind solos full of cheeky comments. Ashkenazy's timing is actually a few seconds less, but the crackle of dynamic playing and shapely phrasing is missing, so this movement in his hands sounds comparatively flabby. Järvi's approach is also very Romantic, but there is much more nuancing and expressive phrasing in his strings and woodwinds, so his Scherzo sounds more dynamic and impressive than Ashkenazy's.

The Third Symphony is a tougher nut to crack interpretatively. In this, Sibelius began his process of distillation and concentration of classical symphonic form, gradually exposing short motivic elements until they finally coalesce, often unexpectedly. Its First movement is all about peasants in their landscape, raw and full of gruff humour, as portrayed so vividly by Kajanus. Ashkenazy also takes his Stockholm team into the countryside at a crisp pace, nearly a minute faster than his Philharmonia version, with trenchant strings and rich cantilenas. But listen to Järvi, whose basses and cellos have a much more buoyant and springy rhythm in their opening tune. This is truly foot-tapping, and he is also much more responsive to the magic of the middle section, where we seem lost in a dark forest, with occasional motes of sunshine and sprites peering at us in the gloom. Järvi has a marvellous sweep to the whole movement, and his coda portrays a ripely sonorous sunset scene, where Ashkenazy merely slows down until we feel sleepy.

The slow movement of the Third Symphony is surely one of the most beautiful of the cycle. Ashkenazy gives us a pleasing set of variations on its engaging folk-like melody, evoking a King Christian-like atmosphere, nicely played and very Romantic. Järvi, however, even taking a good bit more time over the movement, evokes a magical forested environment for his wistful melody, tranquil but with more pronounced characterisation of all the other flickering elements, and a truly mysterious middle section with lovely violas playing over a meltingly beautiful pizzicato accompaniment, the latter hardly noticed by Ashkenazy.

The Finale of the Third is a menacing affair; fragmentary and disturbing snatches of themes tossed about in a whirlwind, leading to a rather grim march-like theme. Ashkenazy doesn't really make much sense of this chaotic first section, and in the climactic coda of the march his rhythm is rather fore-square and plodding. After the last chord there is an unfortunate edit, cutting off the dying hall resonance abruptly, and Rakastava starts a only few seconds later, as if it were another movement of the symphony.

I have hardly mentioned Davis' account of the Third Symphony; it seems to me to be mostly at a lower voltage level than either of the other two recordings, but the DSD sound is rather less dry than usual with the Barbican venue.

Listen to Järvi's third movement though, and you are in another world of visionary imagination. Even at a slightly slower pace, there is so much more light and shade, with expressive phrasing of the fragmentary themes. One delights in exciting and swirling cross-rhythms with their crunching dissonances. The march theme grows organically out of this chaos to grow in strength, armed in splendour and vigour, a thrilling conclusion. Kajanus, over a minute faster, has a different vision again: here the first section positively crackles with energy and puckish antics as if elves and sprites were abroad, causing mayhem, and exciting motoric driving rhythms carry the march theme on a tidal wave to its inevitable conclusion.

Rakastava (The Beloved) is an enterprising filler. A neglected but tender and intimate piece for strings and tympani, it was originally published for male chorus and strings. However, Ashkenazy doesn't seem deeply involved with it, so one must turn to the really fervent exponents such as Barbirolli and the Halle or Järvi on his BIS recording, both RBCD.

My first impression of the multichannel Octavia recording for Ashkenazy was one of transparency and refined timbral detail in a fairly reverberant hall (The Stockholm Koncerthus, once dubbed "the Arctic Acropolis"). There is a great advantage in having the violin desks divided left and right, as this brings out Sibelius' often very complex string writing, and there is good front to back perspective. However, once the volume rises, various sections of the orchestra are zoomed forward, so trumpets and trombones come near at the big climaxes, thus loosing their acoustic bloom, hardening in sound and vanquishing the atmosphere of limitless space on which Sibelius' music depends. The violins also come forward at times, e.g. in the second and third movements of the first symphony, or the double basses will move closer for a solo. This sonic picture of an orchestra in a reverberant space is restless and never feels quite real, and at times there is more than a touch of the infamous Decca Phase Four Stereo panning technique as the producer intervenes. Although this admittedly does reveal much orchestral detail, it isn't applied consistently or very musically. For example, the harp part in the First Symphony is the most active that Sibelius wrote in his symphonies, yet at crucial places we can barely hear it. In the 'big tune' of the First Symphony's Finale, the violins are accompanied by an extremely complex harp part, full of loud arpeggios and massive chords in syncopated rhythm, yet with Ashkenazy we can barely hear it beneath the violins. The harpist is better recorded by the DGG engineers for Järvi, but the instrument heard best, remarkably, from Kajanus in his 1930 mono, where it is clear that Sibelius intended the harp to distract from and subvert the sweetness of the violin cantilena and thus introduce more tension and emotion - an astonishing effect.

The Octavia recordings were made from both live and 'studio' performances, and I could detect no audience noise at all, although the close miking has rendered quite a bit of Ashkenazy's grunting and crooning.There is only low-level reverberance from the centre speaker, as often with this label, but the rear channels heard in isolation sound quite odd - the microphones appear to have been placed right at the back of a very long reverberant hall. This is quite different to what one usually gets with a normal surround array, and the reverberation itself is quite long and metallic-sounding, reminding one of the old-fashioned artificial reverberation plates.

In comparison, DGG's recording for Järvi, played at a good volume, gives a superbly spacious and realistic sound picture, providing all the space needed for the great climaxes to bloom thrillingly, without any noticeable intervention from the producer. Indeed as this is a 48K 24bit PCM recording, it demonstrates that the art of good recording is not just about digital statistics. While some will be happy with the Octavia sound, I much prefer the DGG disc for extended listening.

Summarising, this first issue in the Octavia Ashkenazy cycle poses problems for purchasers. It has mixed blessings. Heard in isolation, the performances are quite impressive and reasonably well-recorded, especially when the music is quiet. But subjected to peer comparison, Ashkenazy's interpretations are not in the front rank of the large number of available recordings, although the Third Symphony is the best of the two. If you already have his Decca cycle, I would wait until a much better one appears on SACD, but in the meantime, I would settle for Järvi on DGG as having greater vision, imagination and recording.

Awarding stars is difficult considering the wide variation in both performances, so I am going to settle for a rather generous average of four stars for each. One can always go back to Kajanus, Beecham and Collins if one needs to refresh one's soul with something like the real Sibelius.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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