Over the years, as my collection of complete sets of the Sibelius symphonies has grown exponentially, my wife's reaction has changed from shock and dismay ("Dear God, not another set of the complete Sibelius symphonies!!?") to bitter resignation ("Like, you really needed another set of the complete Sibelius symphonies"). No, I've never counted how many. In fact my analyst thinks it best if I avoid counting how many. But if I can't speak with scholarly authority on this subject, I can at least fall back on long experience and a deep compulsive disorder. So what have I learned? Read on.
Some Sibelius cycles can be dismissed out of hand
for various and sundry reasons: Anthony Collins (too brusque), Barbirolli (too
turgid), Ashkenazy (too unimaginative), Maazel (too effortful and
self-conscious), Jarvi and Abravanal (too literal-minded), Sakari (try again in
a few years, kid), Sir Rattle (ever clueless), and Bloomstedt (better a poke in
the eye with a sharp stick). Many Sibelius cycles, otherwise perfectly
acceptable, come with a tragic flaw. The conductor in question either has
trouble with one of the less conventional symphonies (Three, Four, and Seven) or
his performance of the First and/or Second Symphonies doesn't measure up to
the considerable single-disc competition. Vanska's first cycle (with the Lahti
Symphony Orchestra) turns in brilliant performances of Three, Four, and Seven,
but his First and Second would never be anyone's first choice in these works.
Oramo's First and Second (with the Birmingham Orchestra) are thrilling, but
his Third and Fourth are routine affairs. Then there are sets that force us to
view all seven of these very different works from a one-size-fits-all
interpretive perspective. In this instance, Sanderling is too consistently
slow-moving, Saraste too consistently fast. Bernstein's Romantic approach
works very well in the First, Second, and Fifth Symphonies, less well elsewhere.
The same can be said of Colin Davis's tightly organized, Classical versions,
especially in his first (highly-praised) cycle with the Boston.
Whenever I see the phrase "best ever" in a
review, I usually duck for cover. But now I'm going to come right out and say
it. Paavo Berglund's first Sibelius cycle with the Bournemouth Orchestra is
the best ever recorded. For one thing, his performances of the First, Second,
and Fifth are as good as anyone's; his Third, Fourth, and Sixth are better
than anyone's. And his Seventh is quite simply one of the greatest
performances ever recorded, the standard all other versions should be judged by.
More than any other conductor, Berglund accounts for and respects the
individuality of each of these seven works. His approach is expressive and
dramatic, but also structurally sound. His tempos, never too loose or rigid,
always seeming exactly right. There's also a luminous transparency that lets
us hear many surprising details obscured in other recordings. As Sibelius maven
Leon Chia has said, "Berglund's way of bringing out details in the score is
unique to him, a result not only of his understanding of the Sibelian idiom, but
his intricate familiarity with the music. To him, everything the composer wrote
should be audible – lines and notes must never be wasted. As a result,
Berglund seeks transparency and translucency in Sibelius' music – he is not
the only conductor who does this, but the compelling way in which he does so is
unsurpassed. Simply, his choice as to which lines to emphasize at which point is
breathtakingly appropriate. The composer himself would be able to corroborate
this idea, for his philosophy of concentrated organic growth together with his
concision of expression demands that every note be utilized meaningfully. Every
note you write should mean something."
It was the great Romanian conductor Constantin Silvestri who transformed the Bournemouth Orchestra from a provincial band into a world-class ensemble, and here their playing is not just committed and intense, but utterly transcendent. Listening to these musicians consistently rise to the occasion is one of the great pleasures of this set. And as if all this wasn't quite enough, the four CD set also generously includes dramatic performances of significant shorter pieces, including Finlandia and Tapiola.
Berglund was to produce two more cycles of these symphonies: in 1984 with the Finnish Radio Orchestra and in 1995 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Over time his approach grew more deliberate, and though those later recordings are still well worth hearing, the Bournemouth cycle is definitely the one to have. Originally released in 1978 (but amazingly enough, not in the United States), the production was state-of-the-art at the time and still remains demonstration-quality. Newly re-mastered by Warner Classics, this set is being offered at a considerable discount (about $4.50 per disc when I last looked). What more can I say?