Osmo Vanska first gained international recognition for a complete cycle of the Sibelius symphonies with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra released in 1995, and still available as a Musical Heritage release. Those performances were characterized by a freshness of approach and a concentrated intensity that turned many criticsí heads at the time, and they still sound pretty convincing today. Given that Vanska has now found a permanent roost with the Minnesota Orchestra, itís hardly surprising to find him reevaluating works that are so central to his repertory. Indeed the prospect of a new cycle in SACD with this excellent orchestra must have proven too strong a temptation to resist. And I canít have been the only critic who was eagerly looking forward to this release.
Alas, these performances prove to be
disappointing. Though the timings for both these works are roughly the same as
the earlier cycle, Vanskaís approach couldnít be more different. Whereas his
performances with the Lahti Orchestra were spontaneous, fresh-sounding and
febrile, here he seems far too calculated. In both symphonies, Vanska tends to
present the music in long paragraphs, an approach that might work well for other
composers (Bruckner, for example), but here tends to undermine the composerís
deftly organized structures. Even worse, he tends to underplay the big moments
as if he were now uncomfortable with their emotional content. Throughout, the
music is kept on a tight leash, except for certain interpretive touches that
just feel mannered. If you like your Sibelius airless and well-behaved, this new
recording is definitely for you.
When it comes to the Second, Iíve always been fond of several early stereo releases: the ever reliable and inspired Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony, George Szell whipping the Concertgebouw into a graceful frenzy. Sir John Barbirolliís account with the Royal Philharmonic (not his later, flaccid performance with the Halle) is about as heart-on-sleeve, hyperemotional as it gets: too much for some, perhaps, but just right for me. And I love the sense of rapture, abandon, and ferocity that the undervalued Thomas Schippers achieves in his recording with the New York Philharmonic. The roughly contemporaneous recordings by Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony and Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic are both compelling in their very different ways. Recently Iíve been listening with great pleasure to Jukka-Pekka Sarastreís Sibelius cycle with the Finnish Radio Orchestra (the live set he did in Moscow, not the studio recordings that preceded it): the performances of both the Second and the Fifth are highlights. As for the Fifth, Iíd have no hesitation in recommending the early recording by Vanska and the Lahti Orchestra. It comes with a substantial bonus: the first (and very, very different) version of the symphony.
As for the present release, the orchestral playing canít be faulted, and the sound is up to this companyís high standard ó but all in a lost cause.