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Jean Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7.
03 Feb 2008

SIBELIUS: Symphonies 1-7

In tandem with the recently released set of Sir Simon Rattle’s recordings of Mahler’s symphonies on EMI Classics, the set of the complete symphonies by Jean Sibelius merits attention.

Jean Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7.

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor.

EMI Classics 50999 5 00753 2 4 [5 CDs]

$33.98  Click to buy

The affinities between the two sets of works are known, with the connection between the two composers existing in Mahler’s comment to Sibelius that a symphony must embody a world. Yet Sibelius took as his starting point the late-Romantic symphonic idiom to explore several aspects of modernism as he developed his own style within the bounds of an instrumental milieu. In performing the body of Sibelius’s symphonic works, Rattle evinces his own affinity with the music that emerges in this set of recordings made between 1984 and 1987. Several of the additional tracks in this set date from earlier sessions, notably the two cuts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Night Ride and Sunrise, op. 55, and the second performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, both made in September 1981. The relative short period during which Rattle made these recordings contributes to the sense of cohesiveness to the set, and the use of the same ensemble, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is another asset. Yet it is Rattle’s own sense of Sibelius’s style that makes this set of Sibelius’s symphonies attractive.

With the famously misunderstood Fourth Symphony, Rattle offers a solid reading of the work that makes the architecture of the score audibly apparent. A relatively short, four-movement work, The Fourth Symphony is outwardly more dissonant than the composer’s previous contributions to the genre. The manipulation of cells and motives that Sibelius used in the Second Symphony is key to the structure of the Fourth Symphony, as is the use of sparer forces that give a sense of large-scale chamber music to this score. Rattle is keen to bring out the interaction of the various motives in this work, with the varying orchestral timbres intersecting the work almost seamlessly. The limpid sonorities found in the third movement are one of the more intriguing aspects of the recording, which demonstrates the tight ensemble of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. With such a demanding score, Rattle offers a fine reading that emerges well in the particular recording in this set, and it is the effectiveness of this less-familiar Symphony that is one criterion of a cycle like this.

In leading the more familiar works by Sibelius, such as the First, Second, and Fifth Symphonies, Rattle demonstrates his command of the scores. The first movement of the First Symphony contains some subtle contrasts in tempo that convey to support the tone of the movement, and this includes both some of the slower passages as well as cascading accelerandos. In balancing the strings and brass, the recording of this work gives the impression of distance separating the two timbres which, in turn, underscores the sense of expansiveness that is part of the movement.

Such balances serve well in the first movement of the Second Symphony, in which the supporting string parts emerge clearly to create a harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment to the music. In that movement, which involves the presentation and development of various motifs before they combine into larger ideas and full themes, such accompanying figures are essential to the continuity of the music. In bringing out the secondary ideas, which may not be memorable in themselves, Rattle makes full use of the textures notated in the score to arrive at a persuasive performance.

Such attention to figuration emerges elsewhere, such as the Scherzo of the Second Symphony, in which he downplays some of the repetitive figures, without making them inaudible. This allows him to make the most of the sometimes complex textures that contrast the slower ideas that Sibelius uses in the movement. Here Rattle’s pacing again makes his interpretation distinctive, not only for allowing some breathing space around sections of the movement, but also allows various colors to emerge clearly. All in all, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra demonstrates its own sense of ensemble, with playing that responds well to Rattle’s leadership, as found in the convincingly satisfying conclusion of the Second Symphony.

Overall the quality of playing and the solid interpretations contribute to the success of this set of recordings. With works that are heard less often in the concert hall, like the Third Symphony, the reading here demonstrates the appeal that work should have, with its clearly articulated rhythms juxtaposed with soaring themes. In making the colors of the score emerge clearly Rattle offers an attractive reading of this score. The sound of some of the more intimate ensemble writings as, for example, the opening of the second movement, seems to benefit from the studio, but it also includes some depth as various timbres move in and out of prominence, as found in the score. With the third and final movement of that work, Rattle takes advantage of the rhythmic nature of the themes to allow sections to interact with each other. While some interpreters can be a little harsh in this movement, the lighter touch that Rattle exhibits contributes to the recording.

Likewise, Rattle’s accounts of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies bear consideration, since they are solid interpretations of these fine works. With the Sixth Symphony, Sibelius is more introspective than he was in the Fifth. The modal inflections and contrapuntal textures require a deft hand, and Rattle meets the challenge well. The string sonoritiesin the Sixth Symphony are essential to the work, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is impressive in making this regard. The intonation is notable for modal passages, as well as some of the impressionist-sounding passages.

In the Seventh, Sibelius’s last symphony, the composer explored the possibilities of expanding the musical content of the form further than he had previously done. Once intended to be entitled Fantasia sinfonica, as Stephen Johnson mentions in the program notes accompanying the set, the formal dimensions Sibelius conceived for this work extend the conventional architecture to create a compelling work that deserves repeated hearings. This is, perhaps, the most challenging of the works in the set, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is convincing. With echoes, Anklänge, of ideas found in earlier works, alongside ideas that are unique to the Seventh, the result is a work that moves between modernism and convention. Rattle’s conception of the score is evident in the recording, which is, perhaps, one of the more impressive ones in the set.

One of the more difficult works by Sibelius to capture in recording is the Violin Concerto. With the sometimes atmospheric scoring that he used in the work, the full sonic impact of the work is sometimes lost, even with relatively modern or, in this case, recent, recording techniques. The fine work of Rattle and Nigel Kennedy is apparent in the recording, but it does not convey the immediacy that is essential to this important twentieth-century violin concert. The playing is solid, and stands well as reissued in this set, but the recording itself does not capture the excitement that must have been present in the live performance on which it is based.

In addition to Sibelius’s seven symphonies and the Violin Concerto, this set includes several of the composer’s tone poems, specifically The Oceanides, Op. 73, Kuolema, Op. 44, and Night Ride and Sunrise, Op. 55. Yet the fifth disc – the bonus CD in this set – contains an earlier, quite atmospheric, recording of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and it gives a sense of the approach Rattle took with this work several years prior to recording the cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As a set, though the complete cycle that Rattle recorded for EMI with the City of Birmingham has much to offer those who wish to explore the music further. The consistency that arises when a conductor records a body of works with the same ensemble becomes a kind of document that listeners can use to explore each piece. Those who might know several of Sibelius’s symphonies might use the set to gain a better sense of them all from the perspective of one of the finest contemporary conductors.

Notwithstanding the merits of this set, it is difficult to avoid comparisons with other fine recordings of individual works and cycles of Sibelius’s symphonies. The discography includes a number of fine performances, including those of Thomas Beacham, Colin Davis, and others. While some critics may have strong fields about specific sets, this release of Rattle’s fine recordings makes his interpretations accessible for comparison and, most importantly, enjoyment. As with other great symphonists, Sibelius’s work withstands multiple interpretations, which bring out various aspects of the works.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI

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