Sibelius: Symphonies/Vänskä

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Osmo Vänskä’s Sibelius cycle is unquestionably one of the great ones, and its qualities are well-known: extremes of tempo (the Scherzo of the First, the Largo of the Fourth), the extremely wide dynamic range (those super-duper pianissimos), and the remarkable clarity of texture produced partly by excellent playing, partly by the smallish size of the Lahti orchestra. The performances are fresh, intense, intelligent, and always idiomatic. At five discs for the price of three, you also get the original version of the Fifth Symphony in its entirety (much inferior but fascinating all the same).

However, what makes this reissue essential to all Sibelius collectors is the additional disc of early versions of movements, or bits of movements, from all of the symphonies save the Sixth. For example, there are complete alternate takes on the scherzos of the First and Fourth symphonies, and a big chunk of the second movement of the Second with a very differently harmonized and scored string chorale. There are two different attempts at the opening of the Third Symphony, with amazingly varied transitions between the first and second subjects, as well as two radically different endings of the Seventh Symphony.

In all of these cases, Sibelius’ final versions are infinitely preferable to his first (or second, or third) thoughts. Hearing this material does drive home just what a perfectionist he was, and how difficult it can be for a composer to bring his material to its optimal state of expressive effectiveness. Most of the changes involve cutting unnecessary repetition, putting a firmer edge on the scoring to give the melodic outline a sharper profile, and removing superfluous figuration so that every note counts. If you know these symphonies well, you’ll be enthralled and won’t for a second regret purchasing this box, even if you have to give the discs you already own to a friend. [4/18/2011]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This One

JEAN SIBELIUS - Symphonies Nos. 1-7 (incl. alternate versions)

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