Sibelius: Symphonies/Järvi SACD

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 9

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this new Sibelius cycle from Neeme Järvi is a mixed bag, and by no means a unilateral improvement over his previous BIS cycle, despite the fact that the Gothenburg Symphony is a finer orchestra than it was two decades ago. The first two symphonies are live recordings, before a very well-behaved audience, and both are very good. Järvi is a bit lyrically self-indulgent in the first movement of No. 1 and in the finale’s Tchaikovskian big tune, and he imposes a massive ritard on the work’s final measures, but otherwise he leads an exciting, passionate performance with a particularly fine andante and scherzo. The Second also goes well. Järvi’s first recording was daringly fast, but this newcomer adopts more standard tempos, which means that the opening movement isn’t quite as snappy as previously. Still, the performance gathers steam as it goes, with the scherzo and finale having impressive drive and drama. It’s not Szell/Cleveland (live in Tokyo), but then, what is?

The Third Symphony was a highlight of Järvi’s first cycle, and so it remains: a refreshing, vital interpretation, here a bit more free of tempo in the second movement and finale, and more artfully phrased in general. Järvi builds the finale’s closing hymn very effectively, and he understands how to handle the closing measures so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary. In the Fourth, the Gothenburg strings have cleaned up their act in the outer movements, playing with greater rhythmic precision and unanimity of ensemble, while Järvi once again allows himself more latitude in terms of tempo variation, particularly in the scherzo and finale. He catches the slow movement’s desolation without stretching it to expressionistic lengths (choose Vänskä for that), but he grinds out the symphony’s final climax and devastating collapse with tremendous power. This time around Järvi opts for glockenspiel alone in the percussion department, without additional help from tubular bells. Throughout the work the horns do a memorable job, particularly in the many episodes calling for those snarling stopped tones.

This new Fifth Symphony constitutes the biggest improvement over Järvi’s previous effort. It’s more exciting, with a particularly eruptive account of the finale, and the transition between the two halves of the first movement is more effectively managed than before. In the slow movement Järvi makes an excessively abrupt gear-shift in the dissonant climax toward the end, and he clips the very last note, but these small caveats hardly diminish what otherwise is a very impressive performance. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Sixth. Järvi’s first recording was swift, sparkling, and effortless, exactly as the music requires. While much of the playing here is very beautiful, most of the energy and spontaneity have vanished from the outer movements, which sound cautious, pale, and anemic as compared to their predecessors.

These same problems afflict the Seventh, only to a much greater degree. Järvi had some trouble with this symphony the first time around regarding his ability to manage the many transitional passages smoothly. He’s notably worse here, and adding about four minutes to his overall timing makes this one of the slowest versions available. Toss in a curiously restricted dynamic range and stiff rhythms (the pastoral central episode is positively deadly) and the result is 25 minutes of extreme boredom. This performance is only a few seconds shorter than Bernstein’s second recording for DG, but imagine that stately rendition sapped of color and atmosphere, with all of the contrasts smoothed out. And good as they are, the Gothenburgers are still no Vienna Philharmonic. This flabby, characterless run-through really is inexcusable coming from musicians who know the music so well.

So on the whole we have five winners and two losers, in truth not a bad average, and the sonics in both stereo and SACD multichannel playback are very good, though not always ideally flattering in terms of balances to the timpani and principal trumpet. Still, among recent 4-disc cycles at full price, Vänskä (BIS) and Segerstam (Ondine) retain a clear superiority, and they also include interesting couplings. For less money, Bernstein (Sony), Colin Davis (Philips), and Berglund (Warner or EMI) are all easily recommendable as well. Incidentally, Järvi’s recordings of the tone poems for DG, while again duplicating many of his earlier BIS efforts, are more consistently fine than the symphonies and are available at mid-price as a “trio” boxed set. I’d like to give this new release an unqualified recommendation, but the competition is intense, and Järvi shows obvious weaknesses, particularly in the last two symphonies, where others do not. It’s that simple.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Complete Symphonies: Bernstein (Sony), Segerstam (Ondine), Davis (Philips), Berglund (Warner)

JEAN SIBELIUS - Symphonies Nos. 1-7

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