JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Seven Symphonies
Luonnotar, op.70*
Tone poem for soprano and orchestra
Pohjola's Daughter, op.49
Symphonic Fantasy for Large Orchestra

*Phyllis Curtin (soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Leonard Bernstein

SONY Classical Royal Edition SX4K 64207
4 discs [63:16+65:36+72:13+49:37] budget-price

Also available separately at mid-price:
Syms. 1-3. Tone poems: SONY Bernstein/Royal Edition SM2K 47619.
Syms. 4-7: SONY Bernstein/Royal Edition SM2K 47622.

by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcasetm

Leonard Bernstein in action In this excellent performance of the First Symphony, all the hallmarks of Bernstein's conducting are displayed here - the impulsive rush of energies, the dramatic moulding of phrases, the attention to lush melodies when they appear, and the exploitation of the colours of the score to the fullest. The lack of subtlety may be considered outdated Sibelian conducting now, but does make its point strongly. The spot-miking likewise has a similar effect.

This 1967 performance is from the previous school of Sibelian intepretation - pure Romanticism, focusing on the heaviness and Tchaikovskian aspects of the score and not trying very hard to show its transparency or economy. Don't get me wrong, this works very well too. The angst and momentum of the outer movements are phenomenal, as is the heavenly final sigh of the Andante. The huge and sweeping Romantic theme in the finale towards the end is utterly breathtaking, and the two final pizzicato chords - heartbreaking. See this photo of Bernstein? It totally sums up the performance.

In the Second Symphony, recorded in 1966, the first two movements are a touch on the rigid side, and the flat recording robs the music of its "fresh-air" transparency. Again, it is the dramatic elements of the score which are emphasized, and not so much the subtleties. The Vivacissimo scherzo comes across better, fortunately, and the "attacca" transition into the finale is solidly if rather heavily done. The real test is the finale - Bernstein paces very well throughout, and as expected, draws out the majestic main theme in its full splendour. Main flaw of this performance is the over-enthusiastic accenting and phrasing of the performers, I guess. The viscous/heavy and un-Sibelian tone of the woodwind and occasionally the basses is also worrying. The final three minutes, including the triumphant hymn, are convincingly and nobly done (a couple of mispitched trumpet notes aside).

Jean Sibelius (1894) - detail from a watercolour by Akseli Gallen-Kallela As we leave the Sibelian Romantic, the tests become harder. The neo-classical Third Symphony is given an appropriately "Nordic"-heroic interpretation. Impressively, Lenny is paying much more attention to the subtleties of this score while retaining the Romantic streak. Bear in mind also that this was recorded in 1965, before the first two symphonies. That's proof of his intelligent conducting. The searching and wistful Andantino con moto is well-done, but certainly not as refined or atmospheric as the best (try Rattle on EMI). The final movement begins dramatically but peters out towards the end.

Left: Jean Sibelius (1894) - detail from a watercolour by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

The performance of the tone poem for soprano and orchestra, Luonnotar ("Nature Spirit") is concentrated and evocatively coloured. Soprano Phyllis Curtin sings with conviction, although her Finnish is a little rigid. Ideally, she and the orchestra could be much more light. As it is, this performance is actually very operatic in character, almost Wagnerian. For a more "mythic-magical" performance, try the Taru Valjakka version with the Bournemouth Symphony conducted by Paavo Berglund (EMI Forte CZS5 69773-2).

Pohjola's Daughter, a "Symphonic Fantasy for Large Orchestra" starts off here surprisingly bright in tone. Normally, the sorrowful cello solo that begins the work is very dark. Here, the clouds turn orange as if dawn is about to break. This atmosphere persists through Bernstein's performance. The story is a variation of Orpheus in the Underworld. The Kalevala hero, Väinämöinen is on his way home when he is given the chance to win the hand of Pohjola's daughter on the condition that he does not look up into the sky during his journey. He does, and loses the babe - who was sitting on a rainbow. The recording is often very rough on the performers, robbing the music of its colours and refinement during the fortissimo passages. Nevertheless, a committed rendition which ends quietly and mysteriously.

The notes supplied in this set(s), by the way, are very good. Excellent writing by Matthias Henke, apparently in German and poetically translated into English by Stewart Spencer.

Bernstein's 1966 account of the Fourth Symphony starts off awesomely. The gothic tritone that opens the symphony is abyssal and dark, while the decrescendo towards the cello solo is spine-tingling. The sound of the black field of strings is frightening. Again a dramatic performance, very committed and intense, in particular the strings. Bernstein's pianissimo string passages are excellent.

Sibelius in 1905 This is a well-prepared and heartfelt performance. In the final movement, it sounds as if, like Sir Colin Davis in his recent RCA Fourth, Bernstein has used both glockenspiel and tubular bells (controversy in the score). It is the least successful movement in this account, with the solo parts spot-miked as if it were a concerto. Nevertheless, a Fourth worth hearing.

Next is another strong (maybe too strong) performance of the Fifth Symphony. Bernstein's view of the huge arches of melodies is massive, gushing and triumphant, the NYPO pouring out torrents of sound. The serene pastoral Andante is earnestly done, but the rich thickness of the 1961 sound makes the music rather rough. In fact, as far as the string pizzicati are concerned, the treatment is far too heavy-footed, over-cooked and coarse.

In the final movement, it would be really strange if Bernstein did not exploit the full splendour of the "Swan Hymn" - he does. As for the final chords, Bernstein spaces them out wide, and each one is very short. They sound clipped and somewhat uncharacterized. Personally, I would place this Fifth below my prime recommendations

Bernstein's account of the Sixth Symphony, made in 1967, feels rather hurried and too "jagged". This is generally a performance which is robust but too un-gentle for me. In a sense, it is another "Romantic", full-toned rendition and will perhaps appeal to those who prefer this view. For me, with the performance by the Lahti Symphony on BIS (Click for review) still fresh in my mind, I find I cannot warm to Lenny's version at all.

The Seventh Symphony here, as the notes imply, was made in two sessions in March 1960 and October 1965. This demonstrates simply how virtually all the "performances" you hear on CD are really bits and pieces spliced together from different takes and performances - a common practice. Weird when you think about it, because this is an "organic" symphony.

No matter, Bernstein delivers a rich and intense reading. I think it is also very "Lenny" - noble, human, heartfelt... in the build-up towards the first trombone solo, or the string hymn before the final Largamente, the music really soars. Bernstein's pace sounds a bit on the quick side, but lo and behold, the timing of this performance is 22'44"! (I.e. on the long side). Verdict: good, energetic pacing that holds this Seventh with great symphonic strength.

The Seventh Symphony is the culmination of an intellectual brand of Romanticism, or a humanistic form of Modernism - this is how this Seventh ends, blazing; and this is also my impression of Leonard Bernstein.

Nature is coming
to life: that life
which I so love,
now and always,
whose essence
shall pervade
everything which
I compose.

In his spare time, the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase practises goose-honking and flapping his wings in a pathetic attempt to fly North.

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175: 17.5.1998

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  • Symphony No.1 With Recordings Survey

  • Symphony No.5 With Recordings Survey

  • Symphony No.7 With Recordings Survey

  • Kullervo Symphony With Recordings Survey

  • Tapiola

    The Lahti Symphony/Vänskä Cycle (BIS, 1996-99):
    Nos. 1 & 4
    Nos.2 & 3
    No.5 (original and final versions)
    Nos. 6 & 7, and Tapiola

    The Bournemouth Symphony/Berglund Cycle (1970s)
    Click here

    The Iceland Symphony/Sakari Cycle (Naxos, 1996-2000)
    Nos. 1 & 3
    No. 2 & Tempest Suite #1
    Nos. 4 & 5
    Nos. 6 & 7. Tempest Suite No.2
    Finlandia. Karelia Suite. Lemminkäinen Suite

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