This set is likely, at least in part, to be a known
quantity. Some will remember the component recordings emerging piecemeal
during the dawn of digital technology from 1978 to 1983. This was the
very same period when Sony PCM digital machines were being used at sessions
even if the resulting digital master was then rendered down onto that
most fallible and primitive of analogue media - the vinyl LP.
Decca's recording balance is distinctive and it grips
the jugular and does not let go.
The first disc groups two works at polar opposites.
The First Symphony at the Tchaikovskian boundary; the Fourth
standing at the sparest Ultima Thule. Ashkenazy takes a spicy, accentuated
and urgent line and wittingly or otherwise brings out the Pathétique
echoes in the second movement. The aggression-chased violin figures
in the third movement are further evidence of Ashkenazy's strengths.
He takes second place to the overwhelming Barbirolli and the Hallé
(only in the complete Sibelius box on EMI Classics). The wonder
is that Barbirolli's EMI Second is so slack when compared with the scorching
Royal Phil version now on Chesky.
The Fourth is the antithesis of the First's
exuberant romance. It is spare and from another 'world' altogether.
Had it been written after the Great War one could understand it. As
it is it seems to have taken the threat of mortality (a throat tumour)
to produce this burning brand of a piece. It must have been a confusing
shock for the audience in Birmingham on 1 October 1912 when Sibelius
conducted its premiere in the same programme as Elgar's The Music
Makers. While some would have had to just from the plunging romanticism
of the Second Symphony to the more classically cool approach of the
Third Symphony (dedicated to Granville Bantock - another Birmingham
connection) nothing would have prepared them for this although Holst's
Planets - Neptune and parts of Mars in particular were to point the
way. Ashkenazy shows concentration, harshness and an unwillingness to
soften the angularities and shudders with sugar dust. The horn whoops
in the final allegro register as never before. This is a performance
which I would recommend to people who have heard the Fourth Symphony
once and decided they do not like it. Those final hoarse statements
seem to prepare the way for the Seventh Symphony rather than the Fifth.
The vivacissimo of the Second Symphony leading
into the finale (CD2 trs 3 an 4) is an object lesson in majesty and
radiant strength at one end of the spectrum and gruff and rasping shale
at the other. This is deeply satisfying playing. Ashkenazy builds climaxes
in a familiar way. I thought of the bellowing Beecham. At 12.05 in the
finale the work develops an angular strutting quality which I rather
The Finlandia is speedily peremptory.
Give me Barbirolli (EM) or Stein (Decca) in preference. Karelia
is also smartly pacy with excellent taut tempi.
The Third Symphony is freshly done. The
attack is sharply etched. In the first movement, at 2.30, Sibelius seems
to be skipping gears with an effect that sounds like a double intake
and catching of breath. The interpretation excels in conjuring stillness.
It is really quite special. Details are crisply presented to the listener
and rhythmic material is eagerly propulsive.
The Sixth Symphony shares the same disc. Never
have the horns whooped with such rough exuberance contrasting with some
of the mannered emphases that preceded the final flourishes (end track
6 CD3). Ashkenazy, the incendiary, produces some smashingly adrenalin-pumping
playing in track 7. This work is usually treated to a wan and rather
fey atmosphere. I was 'brought up' on Karajan's DG recording which always
sounded bled and albino. Ashkenazy infuses the work with a peculiarly
If you allow Ashkenazy time to work his steady magic
you will find much in his Tapiola - a work of studied
contrasts. A host of details rise slowly or with unflinching force.
The screeching gale from 15.33 perhaps gives us some insight into how
another 'flammable' powerhouse (Evgeny Mravinsky) might have tackled
this eerie work. The Philharmonia are on breath-taking form.
The Seventh Symphony starts in relaxed style
- religioso - almost casually. This is not an imperious reading
.... at least at first. The conductor is not trying to command the listener's
attention. However things soon tighten and the music begins to speak
of life, noble and tragic, rising from the slough that gave it birth.
The music seems to know that it will sink back into that slough and
form new material - ever renewing. While there is a hint of congestion,
the way that Ashkenazy wrings out the jagged and corrugated lines of
the foothills of the finale is memorable. However I still miss the hieratic
bray of the Leningrad Phil's trombonist on the 1965 Moscow Mravinsky
version (Olympia, BMG, EMI).
Ashkenazy is similarly successful in the Fifth Symphony
where deliberation reaps rewards in stressing architecture. He is
helped along by Decca's brand of recording balance perfection. While
spotlighting so that every single instrument seems to register with
stunning immediacy the recording leaves the listener unfatigued. The
finale is rife with buzzing intensity, expectation and a power that
is both raw and broad.
En Saga has the benefit of refined sound
somewhat less glaringly lit than my continuing reference version - the
1972 Horst Stein-Suisse Romande recording from the same company. Ashkenazy
is not quite as visceral as Stein and although Furtwängler 1942
Berlin version (on Fred Maroth's Music and Arts label) wipes the floor
with both of them its vintage mono sound makes it contentious to recommend
as a library version.
The Söderström was the first digital Luonnotar.
It is a work that feeds on the clarity of digital technology. Much of
it proceeds quietly - always incisive and often at speed - but hushed.
Towards its peak the singing takes on the brittle gestural brilliance
of an operatic scena. This concise creation epic was a natural for Sibelius
and together with the minimalist subtlety of The Bard encapsulates
the essential Sibelius. As a performance Söderström captures
the dramatic grandeur but Taru Valjakka on EMI has the purer steadier-toned
voice. At this stage in Söderström's career her voice had
darkened and vibrato began to intrude. If only she could have recorded
this work during her greener years - for example in the 1960s she was
in superb voice for her Swedish Society Discofil recording of Gösta
Nystroem's Sinfonia del Mare.
Competition for the Violin Concerto is ferocious.
My reference disc is the BMG-Melodiya of Oistrakh with Rozhdestvenky,
fruitily voluptuous, taut and hyper-romantic - the resolution of many
opposites. Other good versions include Mullova (Philips) and Haendel
(EMI Classics), Also I have been greatly taken with Julian Rachlin's
Sony version heard by me as part of the Sony Pittsburgh/Maazel set of
the symphonies. This can be had separately on SONY SK53272; as
of March 2003 this could be ordered from Berkshire Record Outlet at
I have been unduly dismissive of Belkin's reading in
the past. His highly coloured and vulnerable vibrato is not quite as
exaggerated as I had remembered. This is an exciting and sensitively
'painted' reading and can be compared with Tossy Spivakovsky's and Tauno
Hannikainen's on Everest. It also emphasises the wide dynamic range
- one can hardly hear the first few bars - I had to remind myself that
this is in fact a late analogue recording. The Opp. 69 and 77
pieces, which are mostly rather wan soliloquies in the manner of
the Stenhammar Serenade, are a valuable anhang to the Concerto.
The pity is that Belkin did not also add the Humoresques whose
quintessentially nostalgic and chilly beauty are heard to the best effect
in the hands of Aaron Rosand (Vox). The Romance and Valse
Triste are welcome and are done in suitably hushed style.
The picture is completed by Robert Layton's apophthegmatic
liner notes in English, French and German. The box includes the five
CDs each in its own very plain white card sheath. Minimalist packaging
then though not such as to cause upset to our more easily outraged reviewers.
You can compare the approach to the Berglund Helsinki set from EMI,
the Maazel from Sony and the Sakari from Naxos.
Few sets are as consistently strong as this one. The
Barbirolli on EMI has quite a few blindspots as well as some devastating
strengths. The same can be said of the Maazel-Pittsburgh (Sony). Maazel/VPO
on Decca (including Eloquence) is a strong contender as are Collins
(Beulah nla), Sakari (Naxos - not as vividly recorded) and Vänskä
(Bis - recorded more naturally than Ashkenazy).
This set pulls no punches on the brass front. The Philharmonia
sound satisfyingly statuesque, like a massive granite outcrop; just
as harsh as Sibelius intended. The recording and the readings have the
muscle of a juggernaut and the fragile precision of a steel butterfly.
If you like your Sibelius to blaze and sparkle, with a bass that could
turn molybdenum to dust then this is for you.