Sibelius symphonies

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smitty1931
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Sibelius symphonies

Post by smitty1931 » Sat Feb 28, 2009 9:38 am

Which of his 7 symphonies do you like best? Why? Who of the great conductors performed Sibelius best. My favorite is Beecham with Ehrling a close second.

maestrob
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by maestrob » Sat Feb 28, 2009 10:01 am

Hi, smitty!

I like all of the symphonies in varying degrees, but my favorites are I & II. I particularly like I in the Columbia/Stokowski recording, and II in the Columbia/Schippers disc. My first exposure to II was the Barbirolli/NY set of 78s on Columbia, btw.

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by absinthe » Sat Feb 28, 2009 11:46 am

Nos 7, 4 and 6 in that order. I too like Beecham and was pleased to see the 4 and 7 on BBC Legends. My introduction to the 4 and 6 was Karajan's with the BPO.

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by moldyoldie » Sat Feb 28, 2009 12:02 pm

Favorites are 4, 6, and 7 in no particular order; mainly because I can appreciate and enjoy most any well-considered interpretation and competent performance.
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Heck148
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Heck148 » Sat Feb 28, 2009 12:59 pm

smitty1931 wrote:Which of his 7 symphonies do you like best? Why? Who of the great conductors performed Sibelius best. My favorite is Beecham with Ehrling a close second.
#5 is my favorite, with #1 running close 2nd. #2,3,4,7 are all excellent. I've never connected with #6.
My favorite overall performances are Bernstein's with NYPO/Sony, from the 60s - a great complete set - his #5 is one of his best efforts ever, #1 is glorious also.

#2 has been recorded splendidly many times - I'd say my favorites are Monteux/LSO, Stokowski/NBC, Toscanin/NBC. Blomstedt/SFSO, Barbirolli/RoyPO are good also
Maazel/VPO rates an honorable mention in 3.4.and 7, tho I prefer Bernstein in each case...

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by DavidRoss » Sat Feb 28, 2009 1:04 pm

smitty1931 wrote:Which of his 7 symphonies do you like best? Why? Who of the great conductors performed Sibelius best. My favorite is Beecham with Ehrling a close second.
The 5th sings to my soul better than any other piece of music I know. The way all those rumbling and twittering, grumbling and flittering humming buzzing throbbing percolating sighing swaying soaring and braying bits and pieces all pulsing with multiple rhythms and fumbling and aching their way toward harmonic resolution until just as it seems to be disintegrating into utter waywardness suddenly everything comes together like the sun breaking through stormclouds as if guided inevitably by the unseen hand of God, only to end with those strange, spaced chords that are in their own way just as enigmatic as the 4th's own troublesome conclusion.

Whew!

Speaking of the 4th, I like it damned near as much, along with the 7th, then the 6th right behind followed closely by the 3rd, and then the 1st, and finally the 2nd bringing up the rear--although it's still a pretty good piece. As for conductors, my favorite set is the cycle by Blomstedt/SFS, followed by Vänskä/Lahti, Sakari/Iceland, Bernstein/NYPO, Berglund/Bournemouth/COE/HPO, Segerstam/HPO, Maazel/WP, and even Rattle/CBSO. I have most of the other cycles and several individual symphony recordings, but rarely listen to those not named above. I'm not sure what makes a "great" conductor in your book, but if you mean dead guys with a huge following, then Bernstein definitely tops my list.
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Barry
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Barry » Sat Feb 28, 2009 2:11 pm

If I had to pick the composer that Ormandy was consistently best at, it would be a close call between Sibelius and Prokofiev. Of course, it's big-boned Sibelius, but I like that.
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by diegobueno » Sat Feb 28, 2009 2:53 pm

I love them all, and tend to favor the later symphonies over the former, so that my ranking of them would go something like, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 1, 2.

The 7th is one of the most amazing symphonic works I know of. Mahler said a symphony should be a whole universe. Sibelius has a whole universe in this symphony and it's all compressed into 20 minutes. Saraste's recording is one of my favorites.
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by DavidRoss » Sat Feb 28, 2009 3:21 pm

diegobueno wrote:I love them all, and tend to favor the later symphonies over the former, so that my ranking of them would go something like, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 1, 2.

The 7th is one of the most amazing symphonic works I know of. Mahler said a symphony should be a whole universe. Sibelius has a whole universe in this symphony and it's all compressed into 20 minutes. Saraste's recording is one of my favorites.
Haven't heard that one for awhile--will give it a spin right now!
"Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." ~Leo Tolstoy

"It is the highest form of self-respect to admit our errors and mistakes and make amends for them. To make a mistake is only an error in judgment, but to adhere to it when it is discovered shows infirmity of character." ~Dale Turner

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Fergus
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Fergus » Sat Feb 28, 2009 5:23 pm

# 6 with Beecham

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by THEHORN » Sat Feb 28, 2009 5:37 pm

I can't say which Sibelius symphony is my favorite. I admire all seven of them. Each is marvelous in its own way.
But then again, I generally don't have any favorite work by a particular composer, and don't have a favorite composer period.
There's so much music I love that I just can't pick favorites of anything. Of course I like some composers and some individual works by them more than others, and there are some composers I don't like at all, but it's just a characteristic of mine not to be able to choose favorites, whether books, movies, food, TV shows, or whatever.
In addition, I don't even have one favorite recording of any given masterpiece !

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Ken » Sat Feb 28, 2009 6:11 pm

I'm strangely attracted to the Third, which might be the least 'monumental' of the seven. Played well, though, I feel as though it can make for truly rewarding listening.
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by stenka razin » Sat Feb 28, 2009 6:20 pm

I really love all of Sibelius' 7 Symphonies. Each one has a different mood and temperamant. My mood determines which one I will select, for listening pleasure. If forced to put them in some kind of pecking order, it would go as follows:

#5, #2, #7, #1, #4, #6 and finally #3. :D :D :D :D
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Ken » Sat Feb 28, 2009 6:25 pm

:(
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Seán » Sat Feb 28, 2009 6:56 pm

Number Five
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Sat Feb 28, 2009 8:36 pm

Sorry, but none of them...cue derision from (all) the other members of this Board... :wink:
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Ken » Sat Feb 28, 2009 9:35 pm

Does anyone have this recording?:

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I'm right now in the midst of a record-buying moratorium, but I need to build my 'wish list' for once I've the finances to buy again!
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Barry » Sat Feb 28, 2009 9:49 pm

Ken wrote:Does anyone have this recording?:

Image

I'm right now in the midst of a record-buying moratorium, but I need to build my 'wish list' for once I've the finances to buy again!
No, but I've got the disc with symphonies 2 and 6 from that same set and like it very much. I've generally read and heard raves about the entire cycle as well.
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Sun Mar 01, 2009 12:12 am

SIBELIUSAURUS: Wherein a Well-intentioned Fanfare Critic Sets Out to Review a New Integral Recording of the Seven Symphonies, One Thing Leads to Another, and Matters Ultimately Get Completely Out of Hand

Introduction: The Sibelius Symphonies on Record

It all started innocently enough. A few months earlier I had written a rather detailed review of DG’s set of Sibelius tone poems played by Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; so, when I saw that the same company had issued a complete set of the symphonies by the same performers, I contacted Editor Flegler and suggested a review—it seemed a natural follow-up. As it happened, though, shortly after learning of the Järvi set, I saw that the recordings of the symphonies by Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic on Ondine, which had been issued as singles over the previous few years, were also being released as a set. Especially given the enthusiastic reception these recordings had received when originally issued, it struck me that a comparison might be instructive. Just as I began work on this comparison, the highly praised recordings made a decade earlier by Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony for Decca were reissued for the first time as a boxed set. I had missed these recordings the first time around, so I requested a copy, figuring that without taking a great deal more space, I could incorporate in the review my reactions to these as well.
That’s when the trouble began. While I had lived with these pieces for some 40 years, and owned several complete recorded sets and a healthy number of individual versions already, I hadn’t done much Sibelius symphony shopping since the dawn of the CD era, so I found myself at something of a loss in comparing the three new sets with their most recent competition. Further, I noted that both Järvi and Segerstam had recorded the seven symphonies previously, and felt obligated to be able to comment on the similarities and differences of each conductor’s earlier and later recordings. So I acquired the Järvi set on BIS with little trouble, and was lucky enough to find all the singles of Segerstam’s out-of-print Chandos cycle in a matter of days. (Hint for avid collectors: out-of-print CDs can often still be located, at prices ranging from nominal to outrageous, on Amazon.com.) Further, I realized that several other conductors had each recorded two complete Sibelius symphony cycles (and one, Paavo Berglund, had done three), and wondered whether it might not be interesting to incorporate observations on how Berglund’s thoughts on these pieces, or Davis’s, or Maazel’s, had evolved over the years as well.
From this point, it was impossible to avoid the slippery slope of completeness-mania that sets many of us “serious collectors” apart from normal humans. I already had the Sibelius Society recordings from the 1930s, and all of Ormandy’s Sibelius recordings, including two “short cycles” of the symphonies—i.e., minus Nos. 3 and 6, which he steadfastly refused to perform because he “didn’t understand them.” (During the course of this project, I grew to respect this attitude, be it diffidence, ignorance, or integrity, and to wish that more conductors had had the same.) I also had the 1950s Karajan/Philharmonia recordings of Nos. 4–7; it was an easy and inexpensive matter to get the DG Trio CD set including his later Berlin versions of the same four. A trip to the local university music library yielded four or so additional sets, several Fanfare colleagues and collector friends helped out by lending some others, and before long I found that I had managed to acquire about two dozen complete recordings of the symphonies—at which point I decided further resistance was futile, and set out to get my hands on the few that remained. One problem was that, as I worked on tracking down information on one set, I would discover the existence of another (thus, for example, the Rozhdestvensky set, which I ultimately stumbled upon on a Russian label from HMV Japan; in the immortal words of Louis B. Mayer, “don’t miss it if you can”). To the best of my knowledge, the sets listed below represent every complete commercial recording of the Sibelius symphonies ever sold in the West; I do not discount the possibility that the odd Soviet or Japanese set, never distributed here, may have escaped my attention. I have obtained copies of all these sets, mostly on CD, some on LP, and one in a borrowed cassette dub from CDs; the only recordings I have not heard are the Third and Fifth from the 1970s Berglund/Bournemouth set.
The 29 (or 34) Cycles: An Overview
The basic data regarding the colossal project I managed to create for myself are contained in the accompanying table; not included are about three dozen recordings of individual symphonies that also happened to be on hand. The table is for the most part self-explanatory, but a number of matters bear a bit of elaboration. Labels listed are generally US issues: exceptions are recordings that first appeared here on Angel and London; those are designated by the name of the parent company, EMI and Decca, respectively. LP issues on Columbia and CBS are both listed as CBS. Each integral recording of the symphonies is listed in chronological order by date of completion. Total timings are given for each symphony; these are rounded to the nearest five seconds. Since timings provided along with CDs include varying lengths of silence between movements and at the end of the work, such a margin of error seemed reasonable. For analog originals, there is the additional variable of mastering speed: multiple (re)issues of the same recording often differ in length by significant amounts. A good example is Beecham’s 1942 New York Philharmonic-Symphony recording of the Seventh (not included in the chart because it is not part of a cycle), for which I have logged the following timings in various issues: Columbia 78 set M 524: 19:10; Columbia LP ML 4086: 18:54; Beecham Collection CD 6: 19:16; Sony Heritage CD MH2K 63366: 19:04. Under such conditions, specifying timings to the second is about as helpful as knowing how much gasoline you have pumped to the thousandth of a gallon!
The median timings for each symphony are determined from all the individual timings listed for that symphony. By definition, half of the recordings of each symphony are longer than the median, half are shorter. The median total of 228:50 is the median of all the cycle totals, not the sum of the individual symphony median timings, although the two numbers are quite close.
Two types of listings are not given cycle totals: what I call “shared cycles,” and the two incomplete Ormandy sets discussed above. The former are included because they were recorded with the clear intent of forming an integral set of the symphonies, and/or marketed as such (the Karajan/Kamu recordings being an obvious example); the latter, perhaps arbitrarily on my part, because they form such a vital part of the Sibelius discography, and because they were, in fact, “complete” as Ormandy conceived them. In both situations, however, a total timing does not reflect a single conductor’s approach to the complete symphonies, so I judged such a number to be meaningless.
Each of the “shared cycles” bears an interesting story, although we probably will never know all the details. The first cycle listed was inaugurated with the 1930 recordings of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 by Sibelius’s “prophet” Robert Kajanus in London (presumably, but anonymously, with the London Symphony) for English Columbia; in 1932, the enterprising producer Walter Legge founded the Sibelius Society, which over the next eight years produced six seven-disc sets for HMV. These sets included the five remaining symphonies (all but the Fourth world premiere recordings): Nos. 3 and 5 with the LSO conducted by Kajanus, No. 6 with the Finnish National Orchestra conducted by Georg Schneevoigt, and No. 7 taken from a live 1933 BBC performance by Serge Koussevitzky; No. 4, which Leopold Stokowski had recorded in Philadelphia as early as 1932, was included in Volume 5 in a 1937 recording by Beecham and the London Philharmonic. The Society sets also included the legendary 1935 version of the Violin Concerto with Heifetz and Beecham, most of the best-known tone poems as well as some of the more obscure ones, and some of Sibelius’s lesser-known incidental music (from Pelléas et Mélisande and The Tempest, both also conducted by Beecham).
Walter Legge was again the moving force behind the London recordings of Symphonies Nos. 4–7 by Herbert von Karajan (1952–55); Karajan must have balked at recording the first three, however, and these were entrusted to Paul Kletzki, who taped them all by the end of 1955. History repeated itself a decade later, when Karajan recorded Nos. 4–7 again for Deutsche Grammophon with the Berlin Philharmonic between 1965 and 1967; with no further entries forthcoming, DG recruited the Finnish conductor Okko Kamu to record Nos. 1 and 3 in Helsinki in 1970, completing the cycle (in more ways than one) in 1972 by bringing Kamu to Berlin to tape the Second with the BPO. This “shared cycle” was issued as a boxed set both on LP and, subsequently, on CD. Karajan eventually did record Nos. 1 and 2 for EMI, but never recorded the Third.
An equally fascinating story almost certainly attends the 1960s cycle by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein taped the Seventh on March 28, 1960, with John McClure as producer. On May 1 of the same year, exactly five weeks later, McClure presided over Ormandy’s recording of the same symphony. McClure must have been dissatisfied with Bernstein’s recording (with good reason, it should be noted); it remained unissued until his entire cycle appeared as a boxed set in 1968. Bernstein’s next Sibelius recording, that of the Fifth, was taped almost precisely a year after the ill-fated Seventh, on March 27, 1961; it was not released until 1965, in time for the Sibelius centennial. The remaining five symphonies were all recorded between 1965 and 1967: presumably, the centennial having passed, CBS must have given up any hope of persuading Ormandy to record the complete cycle, and, looking for a more attractive (and home-grown) alternative to the often unidiomatic Watanabe set on its subsidiary Epic, turned to Bernstein. The results are almost uniformly disappointing; this is clearly music for which Bernstein had little affinity. (The single exception, the aforementioned Fifth, is discussed below.)
There also must be some intriguing history behind EMI’s simultaneous recordings of the sets by Rattle and Berglund/Helsinki in the mid 1980s. After all, Barbirolli’s recordings had been staples of the EMI catalog for two decades, and Berglund’s own Bournemouth cycle was only 10 years old. But Rattle was perhaps the company’s biggest and most marketable young podium star, and Berglund had established his bona fides with the Bournemouth cycle. Indeed, the young Berglund had caught lightning in a bottle with his sensational 1970 world premiere recording of Kullervo, which to my ears surpasses the later Helsinki version in every way. Perhaps this was due partly to the sense of occasion, partly to the fact that Kullervo had no established performing tradition to play off; in any event, while they certainly have their strong points, the Bournemouth recordings of the symphonies never reach the same level. In his two subsequent cycles, Berglund seems to have become more and more mannered, particularly in opting for the more intimate, transparent sound of a chamber orchestra in his third cycle for Finlandia (1995–97). Curiously, after issuing four traversals of the symphonies in three decades, EMI has not produced a single one since.
The Seven Symphonies and Their Recordings
Sibelius’s catalog extends to op. 117, but he wrote only seven symphonies. The existence, or nonexistence, of an Eighth Symphony is for our purposes irrelevant, except in that its legend reinforces the idea that, for Sibelius, the musical stakes in writing symphonies were somehow higher than those for other compositional genres. Yet it must be said that many of Sibelius’s most popular and most highly regarded works lie outside his symphonic œuvre.
Which, of course, begs the question: how are Sibelius’s symphonies set apart from the rest of his music, and what do they have in common with one another? More to the point, why should they routinely be treated as a discrete musical literature, as the many recordings considered here so clearly show them to be?
First of all, the symphonies share, in a particularly concentrated fashion, some of the most familiar aspects of Sibelius’s musical style: the use of ostinatos and pedal points to tie together long passages and to build momentum; and, the technique of gradually allowing fragmentary motives to coalesce into larger, complete thematic statements. They also share an overall seriousness of utterance inherited from Beethoven and Brahms; Sibelius composed much “light” music, but that side of his musical persona is largely suppressed in the symphonies. Along with this goes a conformity to certain “conservative” orchestral traditions that had been attached to the symphonic genre throughout the 19th century. Particularly telling is the fact that Sibelius maintains standard instrumentation, with percussion other than timpani used very sparingly, and with extremely limited use of the “auxiliary” woodwind instruments that were routine members of Sibelius’s non-symphonic orchestra. In particular, the piccolo is used only in brief passages, the bass clarinet only in the Sixth, the English horn and contrabassoon not at all. The harp appears only in Nos. 1 and 6. Even the tuba, which Sibelius has been criticized for overusing in his early orchestral works, does not appear after the Second. This is strikingly consistent with the practice of Tchaikovsky, for example; neither the English horn or bass clarinet is called for in any of his numbered symphonies, yet he used them frequently (the bass clarinet only later in his career, beginning with Manfred) in his other orchestral works. Even cornets, which featured in the French orchestra as early as Berlioz, and which Tchaikovsky used in the Marche slave, Francesca da Rimini, Capriccio italien, the 1812 Overture, and Hamlet, find a place in Pohjola’s Daughter, but never in the symphonies of either composer.
Perhaps the subtlest, most intriguing aspect of Sibelius’s symphonies that sets these pieces apart from most of his work is a certain type of musical thinking I will refer to as “thematic-motivic integration.” Three examples will suffice to illustrate this type of thinking. In the First Symphony, the functions of the opening clarinet solo are several, including that of establishing a sort of “bardic” musical frame that sets the tone for much of the symphony; one that is often unnoticed, although several of the program annotators for the recordings point it out, is that the second of the two long phrases of which this solo is constructed (the arpeggio-like figure in m. 17 rising to B, then falling by step, then falling back to D for the repeat of the opening figure) becomes rhythmically transformed later in the movement into the 6/4 second theme in the flute (Fig. E in the score).
The second example is the third movement (Il tempo largo) of the Fourth Symphony. This movement has been described as the gradual coalescence of what finally becomes the “big tune,” which appears fully realized only at the end (Fig. G), in the only full orchestral fortissimo of the movement. This theme, beginning with a rising fifth, then a second, then another fifth, then two more seconds, begins to take shape at Fig. A, only the ninth measure of the movement, but takes some 10 minutes to emerge in its ultimate form. What most commentators do not mention is that the punctuation, if you will, ending this “big tune,” comes in the form of another, new rising figure in the clarinets and bassoons, beginning on a low C♯. Not until the opening of the finale does it become clear that precisely this figure, on the same pitch level, forms the finale’s first theme.
My last example of Sibelius’s almost subliminal motivic craft is the horn theme in the finale of the Fifth Symphony, to which Tovey referred as “Thor swinging his hammer”: E♭, D, C, D, E♭, each moving up to B♭, one note per measure, then returning, so that it forms four three-measure units before repeating itself. This theme, of course, forms the basis of the symphony’s extended climax, but it works as such for a very specific reason: not only is it stated in disguised form during the pianissimo section for tremolo strings, but at its original statement it also forms its own bass line, in an expanded, or “augmented,” version three times slower than the “original” horn version. Meanwhile, the woodwinds are playing a completely different theme that sounds as though it should be the main focus of attention; but, this is actually a ruse to prevent the “Thor” theme from too obviously revealing its crucial role this early in the movement.
If this is the theme that forms the movement’s (and thus the whole symphony’s) climax, then what to make of the punched chords that actually end the piece? Several commentators refer to these chords as “enigmatic”; even the usually perceptive Richard Freed writes, “the significance of these chords is a mystery.” Not really: these chords are, each in turn, vertical statements of the five note-pairs that make up the “Thor” theme—E♭-B♭; D-B♭; C-B♭, etc.—thus, they are the ultimate rhythmic distillation of the movement’s most crucial material.
Having shown various procedures and characteristics that Sibelius’s symphonies share, I must here drop the other shoe: it would be difficult if not impossible to think of another composer who, with each of his symphonies, creates such a completely different sound world. Consider: barely any passage from any of the symphonies could be mistaken for any of the others. This makes the attempt to discuss a “Sibelius symphony cycle” an uncomfortable one, for they are seven highly distinct individuals. On one level, this makes for a challenge in marketing a recorded set: what disc coupling does not seem musically incongruous? The First and Fourth? The Second and Sixth? On another level, the symphonies represent such a wide aesthetic range that it ought to surprise us if any single conductor were actually to give equally strong performances of them all. And in fact, I find virtually all these cycles, even the strongest of them, at least somewhat uneven in quality; or, to state the same thing in a more open-minded way, I agree with almost none of the conductors on how every one of the seven symphonies should go. This basic point will form the underpinning of a large portion of my discussion of the individual symphonies.
Complicating the paradox is the fact that time and place have played large roles in the perception of Sibelius’s importance as a symphonist and as a composer in general. I am not being completely facetious when I point out a strong correlation between interest in Sibelius and latitude: his music caught on first, and remains most popular, in his native Finland, then in Scandinavia and Great Britain. The reaction was slower in the US, and less consistent: in 1936, R. D. Darrell, editor of The Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music, referred to Sibelius as “one of the most significant musicians of our day, and one of the great symphonists of all time”; then, or even 20 years later—a half-century ago—who would have believed that by the turn of the 21st century performances of Mahler’s symphonies by major American orchestras would far outnumber those of Sibelius? These observations are borne out by the venues of the recorded cycles: eight from Britain, five each from Finland, Scandinavia (I’ve taken the liberty of including Iceland here), and the US. The rest of the world, including the European continent, has contributed six, including Watanabe’s Tokyo cycle; of the five European sets, three (Maazel/Vienna, Leaper/Slovak, Berglund/CO of Europe) feature conductors imported, from the US, Britain, and Finland, respectively. I have no ready explanation for this geographical phenomenon, other than to point out that other such distinctions have long existed—for example, the greater popularity of symphonic music in the Germanic countries, and of opera in France and Italy.
Likewise, fashions in Sibelius performance have evolved over the years. One of the most obvious, of course, relates to overall tempos: thus, of the first 10 recorded cycles, only three are longer than the median cycle total (the idiosyncratic Bernstein, of all versions, is exactly on it!); by contrast, of the most recent 10, only three are shorter. On the other hand, it can be observed that an equally strong correlation exists between the duration of the performances and the age of the conductor: Barbirolli’s recordings of the Second offer a particularly striking example, although only his last version is part of a cycle and therefore included in the table. His timings are: New York (1940): 38:55, often frantic and very scrappy; Hallé (1952): 41:20, still unusually energetic for JB, especially in the scherzo; and Hallé (1966): 45:50, with a particularly turgid first movement. Of the conductors represented on our chart who have recorded two cycles, Maazel, Davis, and Järvi combined are slower in their later versions in all but two cases (Davis’s and Järvi’s Fifths). Saraste’s second cycle is faster throughout, but it was recorded under special circumstances—three live concerts in four days in St. Petersburg. The recordings of Berglund, who as I suggested above continued to rethink these pieces, decreased in duration from Bournemouth to Helsinki, but increased in five of the seven from Helsinki to COE. The greatest anomaly is Segerstam, whose second cycle (reviewed below) is faster than his first in every symphony. My most ready explanation for this, after listening to the recordings, is that Segerstam is a serious composer who, in his first recordings of these works, thought like a composer in fashioning his interpretations; thus, he exercises a greater degree of freedom and unorthodoxy than is the norm. My favorite example of this sort of interpretation is Rachmaninoff’s brilliant recording of the Chopin B♭-Minor Sonata, with which only a fellow composer could come up, no less get away (with apologies to Sir Winston).
The flip side of fashion in performance, of course, is listener taste. Here, too, approaches and opinions change, and I will not be shy here about being the occasional contrarian. For example, in 1986, Roger Dettmer, Fanfare’s then-resident Sibelian, patronizingly dismissed Rattle’s version of the First (for which I express my fondness below), while in the same essay referring to Karajan’s 1980 version of the Second as “the best Sibelius No. 2 of the digital-era recordings in Schwann”; in my own review of the latter’s reissue a few months ago (30:1), I found Karajan’s reading “prodigiously wrong-headed.”
Therefore, a disclaimer, one that should be understood as implicit in any review: the opinions expressed here, while I should hope that they reflect some critical acumen, informed by musical training and experience, are strictly my own; and, no matter how technical or specific one’s observations, criticism is inevitably bound up with matters of taste. Thus, any given reader is bound to differ with me in at least some instances; some may find me utterly perverse. My Sibelius is, clearly, not Dettmer’s Sibelius, just as Karajan’s Sibelius is not my Sibelius (except when it is—see the discussion of the Sixth, below); and my Sibelius in turn may not, or at least may not always, be your Sibelius. That’s part of the nature of criticism, too: having been a Fanfare subscriber since the beginning, I still find that a couple of my colleagues are most helpful to me in the negative; that is, extensive exposure to their reviews has taught me that anything they praise, I should avoid, and the converse. I would like to hope that I fit this description for few if any readers, but I have reviewed enough recordings of Sibelius’s music in these pages that my basic thinking about this music should be no mystery to most.
To help clarify my approach to the greatest extent possible, I have collected the following observations, which on the basis of years of reading program notes and reviews, I identify as “conventional wisdom.” For each item, I offer an alternative viewpoint that better reflects my own listening experience. I trust I will be forgiven for occasionally overstating the point of my straw man for the sake of clarity. Thus:
• Conventional Wisdom: The Sibelius Society recordings created an enduring performance tradition for the symphonies.
• The View from Here: Kajanus’s versions are characterized by extreme tempos, often less-than-polished playing, and variably primitive recording; Schneevoigt’s Sixth is even more idiosyncratic. These are priceless documents, but mostly of “the road not taken”; only Beecham’s Fourth and Koussevitzky’s Seventh really became standard interpretations.
• Conventional Wisdom: The Collins cycle was the first integral recording of the symphonies by a single conductor and orchestra; Collins’s interpretations remain the original “gold standard” for excellence.
• The View from Here: Ehrling’s cycle was completed at least a year before Collins’s; it appears in full in Schwann by the end of 1953, while we know some of the Collins recordings were made in 1954 and even 1955. This may be an honest error on the part of British critics: the Ehrling recordings were made for the Metronome label and licensed by Mercury in the US, but were not distributed in Britain. As for quality, I often find Collins unreasonably fast and inflexible; the playing can be scrappy and the intonation questionable. By contrast, not only are the Ehrling versions recorded with a vividness that belies their age (as heard on unworn copies of the Mercury LPs; I haven’t heard the CD transfers, but I understand they were dubbed from commercial LP pressings, since the original master tapes either no longer exist or could not be found), but his interpretations are consistently idiomatic and insightful.
• Conventional Wisdom: Barbirolli’s cycle, in every case valedictory recordings from his last decade, consists of definitive versions of the works, honed by his years of experience and tempered by the wisdom of age.
• The View from Here: Some of Barbirolli’s late recordings are indeed wonderful: his very last recording, Delius’s Appalachia, actually surpasses Beecham in beauty and depth, a feat rarely accomplished in Delius by any conductor of any age. But, as the example of the Second Symphony (above) shows, Barbirolli more typically had an increasing tendency to plod as he aged. His Mahler symphony recordings from the 1960s, for example, often held up by British critics as the last word in profundity, seem to me simply turgid. So does most of his Sibelius cycle.
• Conventional Wisdom: Herbert von Karajan was a profound musical mystic, his every utterance steeped in wisdom and insight.
• The View from Here: Granted, the above is the extreme-case version of Karajan-worship. But what my ears tell me is that, especially after the London years, Karajan became more and more mannered and self-indulgent, and more interested in beautiful sound for its own sake than in range of expression. By and large, I find his stereo orchestral recordings tedious and stylistically undifferentiated. Fortunately, EMI caught his versions of the late Sibelius symphonies before this mannerism set in.
• Conventional Wisdom: Bernstein was the most gifted musical polymath of his time, who could and did do anything brilliantly.
• The View from Here: Bernstein was the most gifted musical polymath of his time, who could and often did do almost anything brilliantly. I won’t address his late recordings here (cf., “Karajan,” above), but many recordings from his New York years show him to be incomparably insightful, others utterly wrong-headed or simply lacking in any affinity for the music. The latter is true of most of his Sibelius recordings.
• Conventional Wisdom: Ormandy was an efficient, workmanlike musician and a top-notch accompanist, but a generally shallow interpreter whose greatest strength was in flashy, superficial performances of late Romantic repertoire.
• The View from Here: Trained not as a conductor but as a violinist, Ormandy grew to be a versatile performer with superb interpretive instincts. At the peak of his career, his tempos were almost unfailingly right on the money, and he had the wisdom to allow his “instrument”—widely considered at the time the greatest orchestra in the world—to play the music, without imposing excessive fussiness or micro-management. His tragedy, perhaps, is that he stayed too long (cf., “Barbirolli,” above). Fortunately, Sibelius was one of the composers who consistently brought out the best in Ormandy, and the CBS recordings catch him at his prime. (Full disclosure: I was raised in suburban Philadelphia, and grew up hearing “The Orchestra” under Ormandy. Some of my most vivid memories of Ormandy performances are of the music of Brahms: the 1959 recording of the First Symphony probably comes closest to capturing the sense of effortlessly achieved perfection and grandeur that characterized the Ormandy/Philadelphia performances at their best.)
• Conventional Wisdom: New Sibelius recordings are mostly top-notch. Robert McColley put it best in his review of Davis’s new Kullervo in Fanfare 21:6: “. . . like the children of Lake Wobegon, all extant recordings of Kullervo are above average.” Having reviewed four versions of the piece in three years, he put the newcomer at the top of the heap three times.
• The View from Here: Now and again, a new recording comes along and blows away all its predecessors. But this is the exception, not the rule. Only infrequently does a new version of an oft-recorded work rise immediately above the competition.
• Conventional Wisdom: Finnish conductors of the current generation have some sort of “direct line” to Sibelius, making their performances closer to “horse’s-mouth” versions than those of other nationalities.
• The View from Here: Berglund, as I have already implied, is often too fussy with this music; the younger Finnish conductors, many of them students of Jorma Panula, seem to follow Berglund’s lead, as if they believed that by now one must have something “new” to say about Sibelius, rather than letting him speak for himself. Saraste, Vänskä, Sakari, and Oramo all do, in fact, have some interesting things to say about these pieces, but I find none of them to be among the most consistently engaging conductors of the symphonies on disc.
• Conventional Wisdom: Vänskä is the new Midas. Since he took over from Järvi as the chief conductor of orchestral music in BIS’s Sibelius Edition, Osmo Vänskä has made a lot of recordings, including, of course, re-makes of the symphonies. Most of these recordings have been received, in Fanfare and elsewhere, somewhere between positively and ecstatically.
• The View from Here: Vänskä has made a number of very fine Sibelius recordings for BIS, at least one of which I myself welcomed enthusiastically in a recent issue. But most of his greatest contributions have been in filling in obscure repertoire, where the competition is thin or nonexistent. The symphonies represent a different, much bigger league, and here I find Vänskä good but not great; his versions seldom make it onto my list of highly recommended recordings. His one indispensable symphony recording is that of the original version of the Fifth, which is available coupled with either the revised version or the original version of En saga.
Symphony-by-Symphony Remarks
Given the large number of recordings under consideration, I decided that the most practical approach was to discuss each symphony individually, calling attention to significant issues or problems, and listing the versions that I recommend. Because of the already-substantial length of this article, the comments accompanying these listings will generally be brief. For each symphony, I will specify my “desert island” version; recognizing that no two of us live on the same imaginary island, I also recommend five or so other versions that I believe are outstanding as well. (Since this isn’t a Want List, the Editor can’t limit me to five, though, so the number varies.) Finally, I will mention the historical recordings that I think are especially worthy of attention and preservation. I have arbitrarily defined “historical” as pre-stereo, even though it pains me to think of recordings made in my lifetime as “historical.” Where relevant, I will also briefly discuss “points of contention,” discrepancies in the score or between recorded versions.

Symphony No. 1
DESERT ISLAND VERSION: Davis (1976). This is the only symphony of Sibelius to retain any trace of Romantic sentimentality, although I don’t share the common view that it bears the influence of Tchaikovsky in any meaningful way. I had never heard Davis’s Boston cycle before undertaking this project, so this performance was an unexpected revelation. Beginning with Harold Wright’s clarinet solo, easily the most beautifully played on disc, this is a gorgeously played and recorded performance, easily holding its own with its many more recently recorded rivals. The dynamic range is enormous, the balances ideal; you can hear the smallest detail. All of which, of course, would be for naught if Davis’s reading weren’t equally beautiful. A conductor can approach the First in a non-interventionist manner, like Ormandy, or in a more activist role. Davis takes the former, which I prefer; the music is expressive enough to speak for itself. Special moments include the A♭-Minor passage in the second movement in which the theme is stated over a two-vs.-three accompaniment with pizzicato basses; no other recording makes the multiple strands as audible as this one. And while details like this abound, the entire reading sounds completely unforced. There is also an attacca between the third and fourth movements, not indicated in the score but sounding absolutely right and giving the finale’s opening a heightened feeling of intensity.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Ormandy (1962). Vintage Philadelphia; everything unfolds naturally and effortlessly. The first movement is broad, but rock-solid. Few surprises, but everything just sounds right. Maazel (1963). More of a high-voltage drama. The first movement is quick, but not rushed; in the old days, we would have called it “virile.” The scherzo is exciting and dynamic, if perhaps a little too fast; throughout, the Vienna brass section is particularly impressive. Ormandy (1978). Two minutes slower than the CBS version; the first movement is now quite deliberate, but imposing; overall the reading is granitic, one of the more successful readings over 40 minutes. (Note: of Ormandy’s RCA versions, only the Second has been issued on CD in this country; but, if you can’t find the LPs, CD issues of several did appear in Japan and may still be available.) Rattle (1984). Rattle’s recordings received very mixed reviews when they were first issued. This is perhaps the most convincing of the “activist” versions of the First: Rattle is dynamic and plays up contrasts, abetted by a recording that is rich in detail, wide in dynamic range, and beautifully transparent. The harp is more audible than in most recordings, a definite plus in this score. The crucial transition back to tempo 1 in the second movement is handled perfectly. Rattle may overplay his hand a bit in the Scherzo, particularly in the final stretto, but it’s exciting. Blomstedt (1994). A sensitively paced and phrased version with stunning sonics; listeners with good systems will love the bass drum. The finale’s second theme (Andante assai, C Major, violins on the G string) is the most meltingly beautiful on disc.
HISTORIC AND MEMORABLE: Ehrling fits this description practically throughout, so I will mention him only here. Ormandy (1941), issued on Biddulph, is the second and fastest (36:10) of his four versions. Some tempos seem rushed, but overall the performance is an exciting one. Beecham (1951–52), though not part of a cycle, is a distinguished reading; more expansive than any of its predecessors, and unprecedentedly flexible from Jack Brymer’s opening clarinet solo on without being arbitrary.

Symphony No. 2
DESERT ISLAND VERSION: Ormandy (1957). This is Sibelius’s “big” symphony: not only his longest, but the one with the most expansive gestures, and the only one with a definitively triumphant ending. It may not, as Sibelius insisted, have a literal program, but it certainly suggests a musical journey from pastoral to struggle to triumph. It doesn’t need much “tweaking”; the drama and beauty are built-in. This early-stereo version is classic Ormandy: broad and powerful, yet effortless. The wind solos, from John de Lancie’s oboe to Samuel Krauss’s trumpet in the slow movement, are gorgeous.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Monteux (1959). The most popular of Sibelius’s symphonies, the Second was the only one of his works Monteux recorded. This version is available in Europe in a new Decca Original Masters box due to be issued here around the time you read this. Monteux’s conception is similar to Ormandy’s, but not as opulently played by the London Symphony; on the other hand, it features a bit more nuance. A particular advantage is the left-right violin seating, which was the standard orchestral layout in the 19th century. Almost every Monteux recording reveals to me some crucial detail that I’d never noticed before, no matter how well I know the piece: in this one it’s the first horn, right before the finale’s recapitulation, alternating A and G♯ in the instrument’s highest register; you can hear the tension, which of course enhances the effect of the arrival back on the main theme. Szell (1964). Also available in a Decca Original Masters box. As you would predict, the first movement is unsentimental, bracing, powerful; at 41:30, Szell never dawdles, but everything is in perfect proportion. The Concertgebouw Orchestra sounds beautiful. Also, as one would expect, the difficult rhythm in the brass parts at the return from the Trio to the reprise of the Scherzo is clearer here than in any other version. Davis (1976). After a low-key opening, the first movement is a little soft around the edges until the development section—then Davis lets loose. The recording is beautiful and detailed; there are some wonderful inner voices and countermelodies that can’t be heard well in most versions. The second movement is especially impassioned, and the brass and timpani are impressive in the finale. Ashkenazy (1979). Surprisingly effective, considering how early this was in Ashkenazy’s conducting career. The opening is beautifully pastoral, and the movement wonderfully shaped; the end of the development broadens effectively, and the “fade” in and out from brasses to strings and back is gorgeous. This is one of the most dynamic readings of the Second, no doubt abetted by the magic producer Kenneth Wilkinson could make in Kingsway Hall. Segerstam (1990). One of the most convincing entries in his Chandos cycle. The first movement is slow but purposeful: broad and expansive, with a deceptively idyllic opening. The Allegro at Fig. G in the second movement creates a greater than usual contrast because of the slow underlying tempo, and all the tempo relationships are beautifully controlled. Only the transition to the finale is sluggish and unconvincing. Blomstedt (1991). A straightforward reading captured in beautifully transparent sound; even the softest timpani stroke is audible. The finale might strike some as a bit fast. Oramo (2000). A high point of his cycle, it features one of the most affecting slow movements of all the recordings. The true Largamente at Fig. D (the movement’s first climax) produces a startlingly telling effect; the trumpet-flute duet that follows is lovely. The Birmingham winds play with a beautiful blend of sound, and the horn in the finale is reminiscent of Monteux. Segerstam (2002). The opening is completely different from his first version: more bounce and spirit. Although the first movement is still deliberate, it doesn’t seem slow; it is all beautifully shaped, with some gorgeous brass playing. (The sleeve timing for this movement is more than :30 too long.) This is still an “activist” reading, if less idiosyncratic than the 1990 version; there are some tempos and gear shifts in the finale that take getting used to.
HISTORIC AND MEMORABLE: Koussevitzky (1935) set the standard for recordings of this symphony. Beecham (1954), live with the BBC Symphony, is legendary for its energy and excitement.
POINT OF CONTENTION: In the finale, after the first statement of the long second theme in F♯ Minor, a brief passage in F♯ Major leads into the development section. In this F♯ Major section, there are two brief passages for clarinet and bassoon in parallel sixths, based on the movement’s main theme; in some recordings, there is a wrong note in the clarinet. Most of these recordings seem to have taken place in Britain, so it may be that the first British printing of the symphony had this as a misprint. The wrong note occurs in the following versions: Kajanus, Collins, Beecham (1954), Karajan (1960), Maazel (1964), Rozhdestvensky (1969), Ormandy (1972), Abravanel (1977), and Gibson (1982).

Symphony No. 3
DESERT ISLAND VERSION: Maazel (1968) is brisk but effective; his light touch is particularly well suited to this symphony, which represents a complete aesthetic turnaround from the Second. The imitative sequences of the first-movement development section are particularly effective in their cumulative energetic buildup. The second movement, marked Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto, is too often taken as an Andante; Maazel paces it perfectly.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Sanderling (1970) is the high point of his cycle. The first movement unfolds perfectly, with wonderful attention to detail; for example, at Fig. 13, the recapitulation of the minor-mode second theme, the trombone crescendo/diminuendo, usually buried in the texture, is brought out clearly. The third movement combines the same precision and level of detail with a nice shaping of its unusual formal structure. Järvi (1983) is likewise a high point. Nothing startling happens here, but the tempos are ideal, and BIS’s sonics make everything audible: for example, at Fig. 13, the alternating B and C rolls in the timpani, usually indistinguishable, are clearer than in any other version. Maazel (1992) has all the same virtues of the previous two listings, including the trombone and timpani details. Blomstedt (1994), like the rest of his cycle, features some of the most beautiful playing; again the first movement is perfect, and while the second movement is a bit on the slow side, the Scherzo section is wonderful. Segerstam (2004) brings out features other conductors don’t highlight, like his ideal shaping of the transition from the development of the first movement to the recapitulation. At Fig. 13 (clearly a touchstone in this movement), Segerstam is unusually emphatic, bringing out the timpani B–C well. His second movement is on the edge of being too slow, but he manages to hold it together with a solid beat and a nice legato character. The sublime F-Minor episode for stopped horns and strings early in the finale is one of the few versions that actually follow the dynamics in the score.
HISTORIC AND MEMORABLE: Kajanus (1932) is simply too idiosyncratic, but fascinating to hear. Since this may be the weakest reading in Ehrling’s cycle, Kletzki (1955) is the first conductor to get it right; the tempos are good and the sense of momentum leading to the ending is very effective.

Symphony No. 4
DESERT ISLAND VERSION: Segerstam (2004). The third and fourth movements are each a minute shorter than the 1990 Chandos version. The first movement is monumental, its tempo creating enormous rhythmic tension at Fig. F; at G, the “spooky” part of the development with the tremolo strings and sudden timpani strokes, the balances are ideal. The third movement is longer than many versions that fail, but Segerstam manages to hold everything together; Ondine’s sound is incredibly detailed in passages with multi-layered textures, helping to carry the movement in its inexorable buildup to the climax. The tempo of the finale is slower than usual, but very much in proportion to the rest of the symphony. The key to this performance is Segerstam’s ability to make the music move and cohere even at very slow tempos.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Ansermet (1963?). Ansermet recorded the Second and Fourth with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in the 1960s. To my knowledge, this recording has never been reissued on CD (although there was a fairly extensive “Ansermet Edition” on Decca that probably wasn’t distributed in the US); this is a dark horse, but has always seemed to me to be an ideal conception of the piece. Give it a try if you can find it. Barbirolli (1969) is one of those late recordings of his in which for some reason things clicked. The first two movements are superb; the great third movement is rather slow, but sustains motion and builds toward the climax well. Berglund (1975), a high point in his Bournemouth cycle, takes the first movement very broadly, but creates as effective a sustained mood as anyone. The second movement (the Scherzo, such as it is) is fast, but not so fast as to create a jarring contrast, and the third movement sustains as effectively as the first: even though the tempo is slow, the line is maintained. EMI’s sound is splendid, with a wide dynamic range and no gimmicks; the climax of the finale packs a real wallop. Ashkenazy (1980) is a dynamic reading that even Dettmer (5:1) praised; it is one of the few recordings in which the finale is taken Allegro as marked. Berglund (1984) is refreshingly unsentimental, with only an occasional indulgence of his tendency to italicize. The smallish orchestra contributes to the starkness of mood; the buildup in the third movement is effective, and the finale is again a true Allegro. Rattle (1986) is quite different: the first movement is slow and monumental, the third inexorable and riveting. EMI provides sound almost as good as it had for Berglund in Bournemouth. Saraste (1988)—a high point in his cycle: the first movement is broad, but coheres; the flow of the third movement is natural and unmannered, and the finale is once more taken at a rapid tempo (almost too rapid). The woodwind solos in the third movement are especially lovely. Segerstam (1990) pushes the limits of tempos in the first and third movements; holding the performance together at this pace (this is the slowest Fourth known to me) is quite an imposing achievement. Segerstam broadens the ending of the symphony in a way that just barely works, but it works! It’s clear that, if he was capable of pulling off this performance, the adjustments he made by 2004 would yield terrific results. Davis (1994) does a particularly nice job of bringing out the many rhythmic conflicts of the first movement while sustaining the pulse; it seems that in this music Sibelius is determined to undermine the bar-line wherever possible, and Davis strikes an ideal balance. While the overall durations are almost identical, Davis adjusts some of the tempos of his Boston version, one of the few less-than-fully successful readings in that cycle, and this London version works better overall.
HISTORIC AND MEMORABLE: I have already mentioned the Stokowski and Beecham versions; in addition, a virtually forgotten recording, Rodzinski (1946) with the New York Philharmonic, is one of his finest recordings: intense, energetic, with a propulsive finale. This version, issued on Columbia’s 78-rpm set M 665, never appeared on LP. At 30:10, it is faster than any of the versions listed here, but never seems rushed. Ormandy (1954) is cut from the same cloth, but if anything is truly fierce, one of the most energetic recordings he ever made; it is also one of the few recordings of this symphony that actually opens ff as indicated. Ormandy’s version brings to mind the words of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” Ormandy unquestionably takes arms against Sibelius’s sea of troubles; while the outcome is inevitable, the struggle is titanic.
POINT OF CONTENTION: Two, actually. The Breitkopf score of the Fourth was riddled with misprints, some of which remain in the Dover reprint, others of which were corrected by hand. The worst is the lack of a natural sign before an E in the bass trombone at the ff brass passage six measures after Fig. C; the key signature had changed to six sharps a few bars earlier, and Sibelius probably simply forgot that he needed to cancel out the E♯. The resulting chord is hideous (and the E♮ makes the chord correspond to its recurrence in the recapitulation). The wrong note is played in Stokowski (1932) and Karajan (1953), which is otherwise a fine performance.
The second point of contention is the famous bells controversy in the finale. Sibelius writes “Glocken” in the score; evidently, at some point the suffix “spiel” was added by hand. It may be impossible ever to know for sure what Sibelius’s intentions were; he notoriously lavished extravagant praise on any conductor whose performance of his work he heard, so he never corrected anyone. This is ultimately one of those quandaries in which what sounds right is the way one first heard it, but it seems to me that the glockenspiel is completely incompatible with the dark moods and colors of this symphony; moreover, at one point Sibelius wrote the instruction sonore in the part, which seems an improbable sound for that instrument. The obvious alternative, and the instrument indicated by the word “Glocken,” is tubular bells or chimes; when Sibelius did call for glockenspiel in two of his tone poems, he used the terms “Stahlstäbe” in Lemminkäinen’s Return, and “Campanelli” in The Oceanides. Most conductors, in any event, use glockenspiel; some use a combination, which may sound better but is virtually certain to be wrong one way or the other. The versions that use tubular bells exclusively are Rodzinski (1946), Ansermet (1963), Bernstein (1966)—although it sounds like he may use a combination at the end, Abravanel (1977), Blomstedt (1989), and Leaper (1990).

Symphony No. 5
DESERT ISLAND VERSION: Bernstein (1961). This is Sibelius’s symphony in the “Eroica” key of E♭; the Lemminkäinen Suite is in the same key. Bernstein is bound to be a controversial choice, but the Fifth is a symphony he surely learned at the knee of his mentor Koussevitzky (see below). And this time he got it right: his reading is dramatic without the quirks or exaggerations that plague his versions of most of the other symphonies. The climax of the first movement (Fig. M) is wonderfully radiant, and the way he whips up the end of the movement is as exciting as hell.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: There are more effective recordings of the Fifth than of any other symphony, so I will hone down the list to my favorites, beginning with Gibson (1959). This recording with the London Symphony was originally issued in the US on an RCA LP, coupled with the most sparkling recording of the Karelia Suite ever; it was once available on a Decca CD. It may be a bit understated, but the unfolding of the musical logic is natural and sure-handed, and the sound is terrific. Gibson made at least one other superb Sibelius LP for EMI in the 1960s. Chandos must have caught him too late in his career; his early-1980s cycle is sadly prosaic by comparison with his earlier work. Davis (1976). The first movement is broad and relaxed, but never seems too slow, even at 14:56. The Boston Symphony wind section is particularly lovely. Rattle (1987) is scrupulous and effective without any fancy stuff, although he whips up the end of the first movement the way Beecham might have in a live concert. (Curiously, Beecham never recorded the Fifth.) The recording features some top-notch playing from Birmingham’s principal trumpet and the same superb sound that EMI gave Rattle on his other recordings in this cycle. Blomstedt (1989) gives a more relaxed reading of the first movement, but likewise does nothing gimmicky; he is very faithful to the score without ever becoming dull or predictable. The “Thor” theme is not quite as grand as it is in the hands of Bernstein and a few others, but the performance is convincing nonetheless. As with the other entries in this cycle, the sound has a splendid breadth and clarity. Segerstam (1991), like Davis, is leisurely in the first movement (14:53), but his superb control, internal logic and clarity, along with the richness of Chandos’s sound, prevent any sense of slowness. The solo winds play beautifully. The only glitches are a few idiosyncratic gearshifts in the third movement; without them, this version might have ended up on my desert island. Vänskä (1997) is a super-high-voltage reading with probably the most exciting first-movement ending; the stretto between Figs. F and G in the second movement is also as exciting as they come. Add BIS’s sonics and this is a fun, if not subtle, listening experience. Segerstam (2003) shaves a minute off his first movement, the result being beautifully paced and shaped. Segerstam is still a thoughtful, insightful, sometimes idiosyncratic performer, but is far less willful or seemingly arbitrary than he could be in his earlier cycle. The “Thor” music is really imposing, with a perfect tempo, terrific horns, and a strong enough bass line to create ideal balances. This is big-boned Segerstam (have you ever seen his picture?), with the widest gamut of moods and colors anywhere in his cycle. Further, not only is the recorded sound superb, but the Helsinki Philharmonic has clearly graduated to the ranks of the world-class orchestras since Berglund’s rather thin-sounding 1980s recordings. Only a colossal increase in tempo in the last 16 measures, where Sibelius calls for Un pochettino stretto, keeps this one off the island.
HISTORIC AND MEMORABLE: Koussevitzky (1936) was the standard version of this symphony into the 1950s. Ormandy (1954), coupled with the Fourth discussed above, is committed and compelling; the first-movement stretto is beautifully calibrated and builds a huge amount of momentum without ever being obvious or crass.

Symphony No. 6
DESERT ISLAND VERSION: Karajan (1967). Karajan had a special affinity for this work (see Historic and Memorable, below); he captured its unique sound world and paced its four problematic movements better than anyone else before or since.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Maazel (1968). It’s the tempo, stupid! The biggest problem in this symphony is that there’s no real slow movement, but too many conductors are tempted to treat one or more of the four as if they were. Maazel’s first version, which happens to be the fastest in our survey, has a lovely, atmospheric opening that only gradually turns into a real Allegro (at the appropriate point, where the strings begin their moto perpetuo eighth-notes). The second and third movements may be a bit too speedy at 4:03 and 3:02, but Maazel’s non-sentimental approach and light touch are a good fit for this enigmatic score. Rattle (1986), by contrast, takes 6:18 for the second movement, but somehow keeps it moving; his finale is over 10 minutes long, but feels comfortable. Leaper (1990) gives a performance that seems to unfold naturally; if it doesn’t probe the music’s ultimate mysteries like Karajan, it makes an honest case for itself. This is the high point of his cycle. The performance is doubtless enhanced by its spacious, lifelike sound, with wonderful wind/string balances; several producers shared responsibility for Leaper’s cycle, but Günter Appenheimer, who produced this and the Second, got the finest results by far. Davis (1994) is more deliberate than he had been in his Boston recording, but the middle movements are still appropriately light-footed. In this performance, Davis plays up the dramatic aspects of the piece more than anyone else does. The recording can be delicate: the harp is nicely audible in its third-movement canons with the flute; but the brass entries pack a surprising wallop. Oramo (2003) calibrates the tempo relationships nicely: the second movement is well paced at 5:21, and the third is a real Vivace. The finale strikes a nice balance between its Allegro molto marking and its more contemplative aspects; if it doesn’t probe quite as deeply as Karajan, it still works. The sound is wonderfully full and transparent.
HISTORIC AND MEMORABLE: Karajan (1955). This is, quite simply, the most sublime version of the Sixth ever recorded. Further comment would be superfluous.
POINT OF CONTENTION: The bass clarinet part is written in bass clef, as was Sibelius’s custom after his earliest works. At the opening of the finale, it is in treble clef from the opening up to Fig. A. When instruments generally notated in bass clef change to treble, an ambiguity arises: is the intended register as written, or an octave below? (When bass clarinet parts are completely in the treble clef, they sound in the octave below where they are notated; that way, the fingerings are identical to those of standard clarinet parts.) Here, the bass clarinet and second bassoon (also in treble clef) begin in unison; when the bassoon part changes back to bass clef in m. 2, it is clear that to maintain the unison, the bass clarinet must be played in the upper octave. Passages from Sibelius’s bass clarinet parts in Night Ride and Sunrise and The Bard also show that his treble-clef notation is octave-transposed. Since the part in the Sixth Symphony has a less obvious context, the result is that it is often played an octave too low, doubling the bass line in a register otherwise uninhabited in this passage. Versions in which the bass clarinet is incorrectly played in the lower octave are Karajan (1967)—its only flaw, Maazel (1968 and 1992), Rozhdestvensky (1973), Abravanel (1977), Berglund (1986), Saraste (1988 and 1993), and Segerstam (1991).

Symphony No. 7
DESERT ISLAND VERSION: Ormandy (1976). This one-movement work is, among other things, a study in metric and tempo relationships; there are at least nine discrete tempo markings, but they are interrelated in various complex ways—some of them prefiguring Elliott Carter’s technique of “metric modulation”—and linked by lengthy affrettando and rallentando passages. Putting it simply, pacing is a crucial issue in the Seventh. Another of its most distinctive characteristics is its scoring, which is far fuller than that of the Sixth: the strings are divided almost throughout, and there is a constant blending of colors—woodwind and strings, for example, or woodwinds and brass—and a great deal of octave doubling. In other words, two vital aspects of the Seventh are timing and orchestral color. It could have been made for Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His second recording begins with a beautifully expansive Adagio, and accelerates in an inexorably seamless flow all the way to Fig. J (Vivacissimo; the scherzo section). All the tempo shifts are likewise seemingly undetectable; the performance overall is slow, but so taut is its internal logic that it never seems slow, as Karajan sometimes does. Finally, the horn “whoop” at the climax just before the end makes as powerful an impression here as in any performance I’ve heard. This one is worth hunting for.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Beecham (1955) takes a more vigorous approach; the opening is energetic, but still seems to be paced as the indicated Adagio. Where Ormandy treats the section approaching the scherzo as one continuous increase in tempo, Beecham reads it as a series of attempts to ratchet the tempo up from that of the slow opening section to the Vivacissimo. Both are intriguing. Ormandy (1960) steers a middle course; the basic approach of the 1976 version is already fully formed, but the tempos are more moderate. Everything seems to fall naturally into place. And this recording has the advantage of being available (on an Essential Classics import, along with the desert-island Second). Järvi (1985) gives a no-nonsense reading in the Beecham mode; the three-part counterpoint between clarinet, bassoon, and timpani, then flute, bassoon, and timpani between Figs. F and H is nicely audible here as it is in few readings. Rattle (1985) also makes this passage clear and transparent (again, no doubt, with a little help from his engineers); his is a long-line conception in the Ormandy mode, marred by only one audible gear-shift right before the last of the three trombone solos. The horn “whoop” is spectacular. Blomstedt (1993) shares many of Ormandy’s virtues in a very low-profile way; the tempo gradations are seamless, the contrapuntal passage cited above is as transparent as any—indeed, the pickup of the important timpani part is one of the best; but it’s all so natural and unspectacular—both the performance and the sound—that it would be easy to undervalue this performance. Don’t; it’s a winner. Vänskä (1997) is a bit like Karajan Lite; the opening is expansive—in fact, the whole opening section is very slow and legato—and it’s only when the big affrettando gets underway at Fig. F that the performance becomes more mainstream. The three-part counterpoint is wonderfully clear, as we would expect from BIS’s wizards.
HISTORIC AND MEMORABLE: Koussevitzky (1933). This live performance with the BBC Symphony, incorporated in the Sibelius Society collection, has long been considered the paradigmatic version of this symphony. The sound is less vivid than that of contemporary studio recordings, but it’s entirely tolerable, especially in its new transfer on Naxos Historical. Karajan (1955) was actually recorded a mere four months before Beecham, but in mono only; it is the prototype of the expansive approach, with only Maazel (1992), which sinks under its own weight, longer in duration. Like Ormandy (1976), this performance masks its transitions, so that it’s only when we reach the scherzo at Fig. J that we realize the speed-up we’ve been waiting for has been happening for some time. The affrettando in Karajan’s stereo (1967) version seems more calculated, and the Berlin Philharmonic actually makes some ugly sounds! This is the Karajan version to have.

Cycle Recommendations
As I said at the outset, no single conductor has done full justice to the entire Sibelius symphony cycle. But after I finished listening and taking notes, I was surprised to find that certain names kept recurring in my list of preferred versions. Note that many of the cycles are available as singles as well as boxed sets. Here are my top five, from most recent to oldest:
Segerstam/Helsinki PO (Ondine): Segerstam is a truly creative musician, and like most creative people, can sometimes be unorthodox. Certainly, this was true of his earlier cycle for Chandos. But he seems to have gotten the most wayward ideas about these pieces out of his system since he made that cycle, and his current thoughts are often brilliant, almost always intriguing, and generally worth hearing. This may not be your best choice if you plan on owning only one recording of the symphonies, though, since sometimes his ideas don’t work nearly as well as others; I’d want to supplement it with alternative versions of Nos. 1, 6, and 7.
Blomstedt/San Francisco SO (Decca): Blomstedt is not my desert-island choice for any of the symphonies, but I found most of the performances excellent and the recordings terrific. The only performance I consider disappointing is the Sixth. This is a strong choice.
Rattle/City of Birmingham SO (EMI): These performances were received very unevenly on their initial release, so I was surprised that they kept popping up on my list of preferred versions. The sound is stunning. I found only the Second unsatisfactory, and that’s the easiest of the seven to obtain individually.
Ashkenazy/Philharmonia O (Decca): Another surprise, although I found that some of the individual discs were highly praised in their original Fanfare reviews (often by critics as surprised as I was). No desert-islanders here, either, but a consistently high level of music-making that only needs to be supplemented with a better Seventh. The five-disc box is generous with fillers; however, you can skip disc 5, whose main work is the Violin Concerto with Boris Belkin, recorded earlier than the symphonies: it is a stunning illustration of collaborative wrong-headedness.
Davis/Boston SO (Philips): The only non-digital original among the five, this cycle is available on two Duo two-for-one sets. The playing is gorgeous, Davis was and is a superb Sibelius interpreter, and the sonics are stunning. Only the last two symphonies were letdowns, and if you’re not allergic to mono sound, you can get the Karajan/Philharmonia recordings of these.
Closing remarks: as I glance over the list above, I realize that before I started working on the reviews that ultimately led me to this project, I had not heard any of the five cycles that ended up making my final cut. Many of my old favorites remain—if only Sony and BMG (which I suppose means BMG) were to do justice to their huge archive of Ormandy recordings!—but they have been supplemented and enriched by many new favorites. This has been a fascinating project. And I’m never going to do anything like it again!

SIBELIUS SYMPHONY CYCLES
RECORDINGS TIMINGS

Conductor/Orchestra Original/Reissue Rec. dates No. 1 No. 2 No. 3 No. 4 No. 5 No. 6 No. 7 Cycle
Robert Kajanus et al/London SO, etc. Columbia, HMV/et al 1930–1937 35:05 38: 50 29:30 32:30 29:15 25:45 21:00 ______ 1
Sixten Ehrling/ Mercury/Finlandia 1952–1953 36:00 41:30 28:35 33:25 27:05 26:10 19:45 212: 30 Swedish RSO2
Anthony Collins/London SO Decca/Beulah 1952–1955 34:45 40:20 24: 35 32:00 29:40 28:25 19:40 209:25
Herbert von Karajan, Paul Kletzki/Philharmonia O EMI 1952–1955 35:20 40:25 27: 20 36:15 32:25 27:55 24:50 ______ 3
Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia O CBS/Sony 1955–1962 39:35 43:40 ____ 31: 25 28:55 ____ 22:30 ______ 4
Akeo Watanabe/Japan PO Epic 1962 38:15 42:00 30:55 35:35 30:05 27:10 20:50 224:50 2
Leonard Bernstein/New York PO CBS/Sony 1960–1967 36:35 44:35 26: 25 39:15 32:40 26:35 22:45 228:50
Lorin Maazel/Vienna PO Decca 1963–1968 36:00 43:05 26:10 32: 40 27:15 24:20 21:10 210:40
John Barbirolli/Hallé O EMI 1966–1970 41:55 45:50 32:45 36: 15 33:10 29:50 21:50 241:35
Herbert von Karajan, Okko Kamu/Berlin PO DG 1965–1972 38:00 47:10 29: 30 36:00 31:30 28:45 23:20 ______ 5
Gennady Rozhdestvensky/Moscow RSO Melodiya/Venezia 1969–1974 38: 10 44:45 26:50 33:50 29:15 27:30 20:50 221:10
Colin Davis/Boston SO Philips 1974–1976 39:15 44:50 29:30 37: 10 32:05 24:35 21:20 228:45
Kurt Sanderling/Berlin SO Eterna/Brilliant 1970–1977 39:30 45:30 27: 25 36:10 32:35 29:25 23:50 234:25
Paavo Berglund/Bournemouth SO EMI/Royal Classics 1972–1977 38:50 44:50 31:30 37:05 32:00 31:20 21:45 237:30 2
Maurice Abravanel/Utah SO Vanguard 1977 36:40 43:00 29:20 34: 30 29:10 28:05 21:15 222:00
Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia O RCA 1972–1978 41:40 44:35 ____ 32: 15 33:40 ____ 23:40 ______ 6
Alexander Gibson/Scottish NO Chandos 1982–1983 37:20 41:10 26: 10 30:55 29:15 27:20 20:30 212:40
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Philharmonia O Decca 1979–1984 39:30 46:20 29: 30 32:55 31:30 28:10 22:25 230:20
Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg SO BIS 1982–1985 38:35 41:45 29: 15 37:50 33:40 27:20 20:45 229:10
Simon Rattle/City of Birmingham SO EMI 1984–1987 41:30 44:55 28:30 37: 30 30:25 29:35 22:25 234:50
Paavo Berglund/Helsinki PO EMI 1984–1987 36:20 39:45 28:30 34: 20 30:20 28:50 21:20 219:25
Jukka-Pekka Saraste/Finnish RSO RCA 1987–1989 38:15 43:25 27: 30 34:25 32:20 30:05 21:00 227:00
Adrian Leaper/Slovak PO Naxos 1989–1990 36:20 43:25 26:40 35: 05 30:35 26:50 20:25 219:20
Leif Segerstam/Danish St RO Chandos 1990–1992 43:00 47:00 31: 35 39:45 34:50 31:30 22:10 249:50
Lorin Maazel/Pittsburgh SO Sony 1990–1992 40:20 46:50 27:25 39: 45 31:35 27:15 25:50 239:00
Jukka-Pekka Saraste/Finnish RSO Finlandia 1993 36:45 42:00 27: 15 32:15 31:25 28:35 19:30 217:45
Colin Davis/London SO RCA 1992–1994 39:50 46:35 30:20 37: 20 30:25 26:00 22:50 233:20
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco SO Decca 1989–1995 39:45 44:35 29: 15 36:25 31:10 29:50 22:15 233:15
Paavo Berglund/Chamber O of Europe Finlandia 1995–1997 36:20 41:25 29: 50 32:50 30:35 28:10 22:00 221:10
Osmo Vänskä/Lahti SO BIS 1996–1997 35:00 44:40 30: 30 39:25 31:20 26:45 22:40 230:20
Petri Sakari/Iceland SO Naxos 1997–2000 38:00 44:50 29:05 37: 40 31:10 30:20 22:35 233:40
Sakari Oramo/City of Birmingham SO Erato 2000–2003 37:00 44:00 29:40 35: 45 31:15 27:00 21:15 225:55
Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg SO DG 2001–2005 38:45 46:35 30:25 38: 35 31:55 31:10 24:30 241:55
Leif Segerstam/Helsinki PO Ondine 2002–2005 38:10 45:40 29: 55 37:45 33:45 30:05 21:00 236:20
Median timings 38:10 44: 35 29:10 35:50 31:15 28:10 21:55 228:50
1 The 1930 London and 1932-37 Sibelius Society recordings
2 Italicized dates or timings from secondary sources; data unconfirmed
3 Kletzki in Nos. 1-3; Karajan in Nos. 4-7
4 Nos. 3, 6 not recorded; Nos. 4, 5 not reissued
5 Kamu in Nos. 1-3; Karajan in Nos. 4-7. Helsinki RSO in Nos. 1 and 3
6 Nos. 3, 6, not recorded

SIBELIUS Symphonies: No. 1;1 No. 2;2 Nos. 3–7 • Neeme Järvi, cond; Gothenburg SO • DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 568-8 (4 Hybrid multichannel SACDs: 243:21) Live: Gothenburg 9/2002;1 11/20022
SIBELIUS Symphonies Nos. 1–7. Violin Concerto. Finlandia1 • Leif Segerstam, cond; Pekka Kuusisto (vn); Helsinki PO; Polytech Male Ch1 • ONDINE ODE 1075-2Q (4 CDs: 280:15)
SIBELIUS Symphonies Nos. 1–7. Tapiola. Valse triste • Herbert Blomstedt, cond; San Francisco SO • DECCA 475 767 7 (4 CDs: 259:22)

These three recent releases represent three different categories of recordings. The contents of the Järvi set are being released for the first time; the Segerstam is the boxed-set issue of recent recordings that have been released as singles over the past few years; and, the Blomstedt is a reissue of recordings made from 1989 to 1995 and first issued as singles in the early 1990s.
That having been said, what we have under consideration is three integral recordings of the Sibelius symphonies, each on four CDs. The most important difference is the fact that the Järvi recordings are SACDs, the others standard stereo.
The Järvi set can in some ways be considered a companion to the Trio issue of the tone poems, which I reviewed in 29:3; both feature the Gothenburg Symphony, and both are on DG. But the earlier set was a compilation of three previously released single discs, while the present one, as far as I know, consists entirely of first issues. DG’s marketing strategy is a mystery to me, though: the symphonies were recorded over a five-year period (2001–05), which means that some were withheld for several years; further, Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 are live concert recordings, while the remaining five are studio products. It’s an odd mixture. Additionally, the symphonies don’t quite fit on three discs, so the Second is on its own disc, with a duration of only 46:41 and no filler. (Practically all the logical fillers were in the set of tone poems.) At full price, this set is not a great bargain.
Of course, mitigating factors can make such complaints less significant. For one thing, if you want the Sibelius symphonies on SACD, this is the only game in town. Just three of the seven, Nos. 2, 3, and 7, are available elsewhere on single SACDs. The other factor is the quality of the recordings themselves. Järvi, of course, has long since established his credentials as a Sibelius conductor, and the Gothenburg Symphony is now a world-class orchestra.
The quality of the performances varies. Nos. 1 and 2 are very fine conventional performances, and the audiences are practically undetectable, but the recordings do not have as much detail as studio jobs; DG does not explain why they were taken down live. Nos. 3–7, conventional studio recordings, are up against strong competition in the versions by Davis (Boston and London), Ashkenazy, and Rattle, not to mention the other two sets under consideration here. The playing and recording quality are consistently outstanding; however, only No. 5 receives a reading that qualifies it for the top echelon. The others all suffer from some small interpretive defects, such as poor balances, miscalculated tempos, and the like. At his best, Järvi can be a brilliant Sibelius conductor; but in this, his second recorded cycle of the symphonies, he seems too self-conscious or calculating for his readings to be fully successful.
As for SACD listeners, the lack of competition makes this set more attractive. My experience in multichannel listening is limited, but playing the SACD layer in two channels seemed to give a much clearer sense of location to the instruments; listening on my local stereo emporium’s five-channel system, I got a very different spatial sense. The live recordings seemed to use the rear speakers mostly for hall ambience, while the studio versions placed the listener somewhere in the middle of the orchestra without actually being close to any portion thereof. I suppose that, like headphone listening, it’s an inherently artificial listening environment, and it will take some getting used to.
I have already discussed most of the performances in the Segerstam and Blomstedt sets in the article above. If you are a serious Sibelius collector and have several recordings of most of the symphonies already, you’ll find the Segerstam set a fascinating and provocative addition to your collection. The playing and the sound are gorgeous; the fillers aren’t a factor, since Kuusisto plays with technical perfection and no discernible personality, and nobody really needs another Finlandia, even the hybrid version with male chorus (in Finnish, but no text given).
The Blomstedt set is, if anything, even better played and recorded than the Segerstam, and his interpretations are almost without fail tasteful and insightful. Of his fillers, Tapiola takes too long to settle into a consistent tempo, and Blomstedt shows a tendency to micromanage that doesn’t arise in the symphonies; the Valse triste has just the right combination of lilt and languor, but who really needs another Valse triste?
The Decca and Ondine sets are both offered at reduced prices. I’d recommend the Blomstedt without reservation as one of the best one-only methods of acquiring the symphonies, and with little hesitation to anyone familiar with this music who is interested in having a selection of exquisite readings. The Järvi will be of interest mostly to collectors of his recordings and SACD fanciers.
Sent via Twitter by @chalkperson

Seán
Posts: 5339
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Location: Dublin, Ireland

Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Seán » Sun Mar 01, 2009 4:41 am

Chalkperson wrote:Sorry, but none of them...cue derision from (all) the other members of this Board... :wink:

:shock:
Seán

"To appreciate the greatness of the Masters is to keep faith in the greatness of humanity." - Wilhelm Furtwängler

hangos
Posts: 983
Joined: Sat Mar 03, 2007 6:44 pm
Location: England

Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by hangos » Sun Mar 01, 2009 10:25 am

I like them all, depending on my mood, but even regardless of mood, Ilisten mostly in this order;
5,3,2,4,7,6,1
Favourite recordings;
#1 Maazel/VPO Blomstedt/SFSO (vastly different!)
#2 Jarvi/GSO (BIS) so wonderful it spoils all others for me,because they all sound sluggish in the opening allegretto (8'15" !!!!)
#3 Rattle/CBSO Davis/LSO (RCA) both wonderful ; Davis is steady but very good at building up a head of steam in the first movement - everything sounds organic and natural
#4 Karajan/BPO (1960s) Rattle/CBSO Bernstein/NYPO Blomstedt/SFSO Maazel/VPO
#5 Karajan/BPO (1960s) Rattle/CBSO Davis/LSO (RCA) Blomstedt/SFSO
BUT NOT RATTLE'S PHILHARMONIA RECORDING - I NEVER UNDERSTOOD WHY IT IS SO HIGHLY PRAISED!
#6 Karajan/BPO (1960s)
#7 Rattle/CBSO
As you may have already deduced, I enjoy different interpretations of these works

Any views on Rattle's earlier take on the 5th with the Philharmonia Orchestra? It has garnered rave reviews from various experts, who have also praised the sonics - personally I find the sonics remote and lacking in impact, but I consider his CBSO recording one of the greatest

moldyoldie
Posts: 588
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Location: Motown, USA

Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by moldyoldie » Sun Mar 01, 2009 10:26 am

Ken wrote:Does anyone have this recording?

I'm right now in the midst of a record-buying moratorium, but I need to build my 'wish list' for once I've the finances to buy again!
My past written thoughts:
Image
Sibelius: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 5
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, cond.
ONDINE

These are not what one would describe as straightforward accounts of these two fine symphonies, but they might just be the most enjoyably characterful performances one will likely ever hear. Conductor Leif Segerstam puts his big bearhug around these works in creamily lush and expansive renderings steeped in late Romanticism yet brimming with idiomatic Finnish flavor. The first movement of Symphony No. 3 starts off rather tepid in the lower strings, but builds to a fine frothy crescendo, then subsides via a mysterious ostinato into a prolonged subdued undercurrent of pent-up joy, finally bursting open at the seams accompanied by a loud and proud tympani. The movement dynamically subsides again and solemnly slows as it leads us to the concluding and effectively understated "amen". The middle movement Andantino is as tuneful as ever, taken appropriately slow and characterized here by a fine flowing rubato. Segerstam and the orchestra artfully vary the dynamic, but are careful to never exceed a lilting mezzo-piano over it's roughly ten-minute length -- that's until near the end of the movement when the strings and winds make a subtle, but noticeable break of that threshold before subsiding once again to the final notes -- very nicely done! The Moderato-Allegro finale is also marvelously rendered with its mix of quiet mystery, impending drama, and all-out effusion. The build-up and culminating of the outbursts of brass are something to hear! One wishes for more "extension" to the coda, but alas, Segerstam truncates it as is his wont...and apparently also that of Sibelius. In all, I find this performance to be one of the few I've heard of the Third to present a cogent combination of both profound musical insight and thoroughly coherent interpretation, if not necessarily the very last word in orchestral execution. To that last point, I'll concede that such a consideration would be quibbling and might actually be counter to the characterfulness of which I spoke of at the beginning.

The popular Symphony No. 5 here projects a wonderful, slowly-wrought optimism instead of the abject melancholy found in some other similarly slow performances. Segerstam very adroitly shapes the first movement build to the initial powerfully pronounced entry of the so-called swan hymn, then subsides into a characterful and subtly shaded build to the even more powerful conclusion of the movement -- it seems to spontaneously explode from the orchestra! The final two movements are equally affecting in their fine phrasing and shaping of both tempo and dynamics. The second appearance of the swan hymn is given an appropriately paced and exhilirating lilt, while the coda suddenly and unusually takes on an extra dose of speed before running up against the concluding single-note "hammerblows". If nothing else, it's a somewhat unique ending to this well-worn symphony. The sound from Ondine is absolutely first-rate.


[Back to the present] WOW! :shock: Thanks, Chalky! :D
"Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time."
- Steve Wright

DavidRoss
Posts: 3384
Joined: Mon May 30, 2005 7:05 am
Location: Northern California

Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by DavidRoss » Sun Mar 01, 2009 12:12 pm

Ken wrote:Does anyone have this recording?
I have it and largely agree with moldy's comments above, especially:
...they might just be the most enjoyably characterful performances one will likely ever hear. Conductor Leif Segerstam puts his big bearhug around these works in creamily lush and expansive renderings steeped in late Romanticism yet brimming with idiomatic Finnish flavor.
at least if by characterful we're referring specifically to the more voluptuously Romantic interpretive style, at which Segerstam excels without the excessiveness of some such as Ashkenazy. And the sound quality is very good, indeed, demonstrating how much more cohesive, full-sounding, and uniformly more virtuoso the HPO is now than in the day of Berglund's very good but notably leaner second cycle. I'm more fond of this 5th than the 3rd--but then I've always liked Segerstam's 5th with the DNRSO quite a bit, too, almost as much as Bernstein's NYPO performance.

The entire Segerstam/HPO cycle has been an easy recommendation for those whose preferences incline toward Cadillacs rather than Camaros, especially after Ondine offered the set in an attractively priced box together with Kuusisto's fine VC performance.
"Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." ~Leo Tolstoy

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Sun Mar 01, 2009 2:17 pm

Seán wrote:
Chalkperson wrote:Sorry, but none of them...cue derision from (all) the other members of this Board... :wink:

:shock:
It's true...i'm not much of a Sibelius fan...I have almost all the music and enjoy a few things, the Orchestral Songs, Kullervo, some Piano and Chamber Music, a couple of the Tone Poems, but, the Symphonies have never grown on me...I tried as recently as last week to no avail...sorry...
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Sylph » Sun Mar 01, 2009 4:07 pm

Chalkperson wrote:
Seán wrote:
Chalkperson wrote:Sorry, but none of them...cue derision from (all) the other members of this Board... :wink:

:shock:
It's true...i'm not much of a Sibelius fan...I have almost all the music and enjoy a few things, the Orchestral Songs, Kullervo, some Piano and Chamber Music, a couple of the Tone Poems, but, the Symphonies have never grown on me...I tried as recently as last week to no avail...sorry...
The Swan of Tuonela?

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Donaldopato » Sun Mar 01, 2009 7:15 pm

All of them really, but # 7 is just incredible.
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Sun Mar 01, 2009 8:29 pm

Sylph wrote:The Swan of Tuonela?
Yes, that and Valse Triste...
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by stenka razin » Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:02 pm

Chalkperson wrote:
Sylph wrote:The Swan of Tuonela?
Yes, that and Valse Triste...
What about Finlandia? :wink:
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:16 pm

stenka razin wrote:
Chalkperson wrote:
Sylph wrote:The Swan of Tuonela?
Yes, that and Valse Triste...
What about Finlandia? :wink:
Over-played and Over-recorded...kind of a 20th Century Eine Kleine Nachtmusic...although I can still listen to Ma Vlast, so all hope is not lost... :wink:
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Seán » Mon Mar 02, 2009 8:23 am

I have the Sanderling set, a few of von Karajan's on EMI and now I have ordered the Blomstedt complete set, I got it for £18 on Amazon. I will not attempt to emulate Mr Ross's florid reading of the Fifth but suffice it say that I enjoy all of these symphonies and I am particularly fond of the Fifth too.
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Heck148 » Mon Mar 02, 2009 8:26 am

Chalkperson wrote: What about Finlandia? :wink:
Over-played and Over-recorded...
listen to Toscanini/NBC/1952 - incredible....
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Mon Mar 02, 2009 9:29 am

Heck148 wrote:listen to Toscanini/NBC/1952 - incredible....
I'm not disagreeing, just not my cup of tea...I liked it when I first heard it and of course many people love it, but I moved on to other stuff, Bach actually...and by over-played and over-recorded I don't mean that the piece is not good, merely that I have heard it once too often...
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by karlhenning » Mon Mar 02, 2009 9:32 am

I like all seven, too; will I nil I, though, my favorite by a slight margin is the Sixth.

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Febnyc » Thu Mar 12, 2009 3:51 pm

I would have a difficult time choosing a favorite. This composer, himself, is one of my top two or three.

The reason I enjoy the Sibelius Symphonies so much is that they give me a sense of "space." That is, I feel like I can breathe fresh air when I listen. They open up vistas and sound like the outdoors. No studios, no cramped quarters, no narrow corridors - just earth, sky and life in between.

Take the final movement of the Fifth, for example. I think of it as a "National Geographic" documentary. I imagine a person in the northern wilderness coming upon a lake - and the rustling, bustling opening to the movement describes the waterfowl on that lake arriving and departing. The scene focuses closer and closer on this activity, and as the music builds power the images of nature are intensified. Then, about 90 seconds or so into the finale, Sibelius unleashes that magnificent rocking horn theme which depicts, for me, the flight of the larger of the birds we've been watching. They take off from the lake, majestically, and, at the stunning key change in the theme, they organize into their formation and soar off over the peaks. Then, the human begins to climb to higher ground and the music follows the trek. Ultimately, when the summit is attained, and the view over the lake and surrounding woodlands and mountains is encompassed in a widening scope, the Symphony expresses this in a mighty coda and, with those huge final chords, seals the picture indelibly in our minds.

Fanciful? Maybe - but, for me, these evocations are the essence of the Sibelius Symphonies.

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Thu Mar 12, 2009 4:04 pm

Very eloquently put, Frank, a persuasive case made for a Composer who I rarely play, I don't really know why either...I guess it's just one of those things...I have the same problem with Schumann...maybe, in part, it's to do with the sheer volume of Bach and Shostakovich that I listen to, I consider them to be the Bookends of my Musical Life...
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Febnyc » Thu Mar 12, 2009 6:41 pm

Thanks, Chalk. I guess everyone chooses their own "bookends" and who is to opine otherwise? It's all a matter of taste, of course.

However, for someone like yourself who works with visual images, Sibelius' music should allow you flights of fancy, as it does me. Even more so for you, no? :wink:

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Thu Mar 12, 2009 11:08 pm

Febnyc wrote:Thanks, Chalk. I guess everyone chooses their own "bookends" and who is to opine otherwise? It's all a matter of taste, of course.

However, for someone like yourself who works with visual images, Sibelius' music should allow you flights of fancy, as it does me. Even more so for you, no? :wink:
I never see visuals in music...never even thought about it actually...I see nothing, just the music... :?
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by karlhenning » Fri Mar 13, 2009 5:50 am

Chalkperson wrote:I never see visuals in music...never even thought about it actually...I see nothing, just the music...
Same here.

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by DavidRoss » Fri Mar 13, 2009 8:19 am

Chalkie--I had a hard time "getting" Sibelius. For years his symphonies seemed like bland muzak to my ears. I tried from time to time, listening to one of the few LPs I had (Ormandy & Herbie the K), but my mind always wandered and it just didn't click.

Then in my late 40s, after hearing someone I respect rave favorably about the symphonies, I bought the Maazel/WP set on CD and determined to give it a serious try...without much luck. However, I began playing the set as background music (Muzak?) while I worked. One day I found that the music kept demanding my attention and that the more I listened, the more I heard. I "cracked" the 4th, the 6th, the 3rd, the 5th, and then the rest and suddenly found that every one of them is compellingly beautiful and true to its own internal logic. Mahler's famous remark to Sibelius during their meeting that "The Symphony must contain the whole world" might equally aptly apply to Sibelius's symphonies, each of which is a world unto itself. Yet Sibelius's remark that what interested him most was the internal logic and the interconnectedness of all the parts also applies perfectly.

I don't visualize nature scenes or anything else when listening. I do, however, think I might understand what those who claim to see nature in Sibelius's works might be responding to, and that is the radical, seemingly "organic" structure of much of his work. Certainly he was inspired by nature--I love the story of the swans circling overhead while he was working out motifs in the 5th--and in tone poems and theatre music often consciously evoked it, but he regarded the symphonies as "absolute" music and there particularly his inspiration did not lead to imitation.
"Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." ~Leo Tolstoy

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by maestrob » Fri Mar 13, 2009 9:36 am

DavidRoss wrote:Chalkie--I had a hard time "getting" Sibelius. For years his symphonies seemed like bland muzak to my ears. I tried from time to time, listening to one of the few LPs I had (Ormandy & Herbie the K), but my mind always wandered and it just didn't click.

Then in my late 40s, after hearing someone I respect rave favorably about the symphonies, I bought the Maazel/WP set on CD and determined to give it a serious try...without much luck. However, I began playing the set as background music (Muzak?) while I worked. One day I found that the music kept demanding my attention and that the more I listened, the more I heard. I "cracked" the 4th, the 6th, the 3rd, the 5th, and then the rest and suddenly found that every one of them is compellingly beautiful and true to its own internal logic. Mahler's famous remark to Sibelius during their meeting that "The Symphony must contain the whole world" might equally aptly apply to Sibelius's symphonies, each of which is a world unto itself. Yet Sibelius's remark that what interested him most was the internal logic and the interconnectedness of all the parts also applies perfectly.

I don't visualize nature scenes or anything else when listening. I do, however, think I might understand what those who claim to see nature in Sibelius's works might be responding to, and that is the radical, seemingly "organic" structure of much of his work. Certainly he was inspired by nature--I love the story of the swans circling overhead while he was working out motifs in the 5th--and in tone poems and theatre music often consciously evoked it, but he regarded the symphonies as "absolute" music and there particularly his inspiration did not lead to imitation.
David:

I had a similar experience getting to know Sibelius. I & II were both immediately accessible when I was a teenager, but the others took longer to settle in. For me, it was the Bernstein set that nagged at me to keep listening, and when it came out on CD, for some reason the later symphonies finally clicked for me. Now, I wouldn't be without them in my regular listening routine.

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by karlhenning » Fri Mar 13, 2009 9:42 am

(* sigh of contentment *)

Cheers,
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Chalkperson » Fri Mar 13, 2009 10:55 am

Thanks, David and maestro, I keep trying and am sure one day it will all fall into place, I did watch a Christopher Nupen Documentary about Sibelius too, as I mentioned before I love the orchestral songs and some of the chamber and piano music, and Kim Borg's beautiful recording of the Songs, it's the Symphonies that fail to lure me in, I bought some of the Theater Music too, i'll give that a spin this weekend... thanks for your replies...
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Jared » Sat Mar 14, 2009 6:37 am

I think that trying to choose my favourite Sibelius symphony is perhaps the challenging of any Symphonic round... I love them all, yet don't really have a favourite... I would say 1,2 & 5, but then I can make arguments out for the other four of them too... :?

as far as conductors are concerned, I have complete sets by Jarvi and Blomstedt, both of which I enjoy very much, although as I said in another thread, I prefer the Jarvi... not quite as bombastic in places, and you can feel the presence of the sparce Finnish landscape in the music.. :) . If you go for this set, make sure you purchase the 7CD set, which includes the three CDs of tone poems, which Jarvi recorded on DG during the 90's...its well worth owning.

The Jarvi set gain the prized Penguin Guide **** rating 'An Exceptional Issue on every count', as do three others: Colin Davis on RCA, Ashkenazy on Decca & Vanska on BIS; the latter coming in a Bargain 15CD box set, containing most of Sibelius' output... :idea:

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Seán » Sat Mar 14, 2009 8:51 am

I recently bought the Sanderling symphony cycle and followed up with a few von Krajan offerings on EMI. I found instant appeal in the fifth symphony, when I have fully absorbed number five I will mone on to the others.
Seán

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by zauberflote » Sun Mar 15, 2009 4:07 pm

Ken wrote:Does anyone have this recording?:

Image
I'm going to be a naysayer on this one. The fifth is my favorite Sibelius symphony and I seem to be collecting recordings of it. This one got a rave review over at Classics Today from David Hurwitz who put it at the top of his list, which is why I bought it.
It doesn't do it for me. On the plus side it's beautifully recorded. On the negative side it just doesn't sound particularly inspired. Everthing sounds adequate but nothing jumps out at you.
And at key moments it disappoints.
I'll give one example. It's been mentioned here how Siegerstam speeds up the big climax at the end of the piece. If that idea appeals to you then this recording may be for you. For me it simply destroys the piece. When that ending comes I want to be blown out of my chair by its power. I don't want to be wondering if the conductor will be outta there in time to catch his plane.

To answer the initial question, my preferences for the symphonies are: 5, 7, 4, 6, 2, 3, 1. For now.
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by Seán » Sun Mar 15, 2009 6:37 pm

zauberflote wrote:
Ken wrote:Does anyone have this recording?:

Image
I'm going to be a naysayer on this one. To answer the initial question, my preferences for the symphonies are: 5, 7, 4, 6, 2, 3, 1. For now.
Welcome zauberflote, an excellent first post, well done.
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by karlhenning » Sun Mar 15, 2009 6:41 pm

Welcome, zauber!

Cheers,
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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by zauberflote » Sun Mar 15, 2009 10:21 pm

Hi all. Thanks for saying hello.
I'm sure a lot of you have read Alex Ross's wonderful book, "The Rest is Noise," about 20th Century Music.
I finally read it after buying it months ago. Apropos to this thread, Ross has a nice chapter on Sibelius. I never realized until reading it Sibelius went through critical fashion swings and that many American critics despised him, a judgment that held sway for years. Then I remembered when I was a kid I dutifully didn't like Sibelius because some critic I admired hated him.

It wasn't until years later I was over at the house of a composer friend of mine who was under the spell of the minimalists at the time and he turned me on to the wonders of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony.
With both of us also under the spell of a little too much Scotch, he played, at full blast, a recording of the old Colin Davis recording of the Sibelius Fifth with the Boston Symphony, which made my jaw drop. Then he got out his recording of Philip Glass's "Glassworks" and put on the second part, "Floe."
He went over to his portable organ and started playing along to it, which he did to point out that Glass directly lifted the great theme from the last movement of the Sibelius Fifth and blended it seamlessly into his own piece.
You can hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYLHRdgdnKk
Glass teases the theme at the beginning of "Floe." At 3:51 of the video he teases it again, but by 4:30 he's just playing it outright. My friend is playing the theme with his his hair flying wildly, like maybe Beethoven playing his Appassionata Sonata. "It's Sibelius!" he yells over the booming speakers. "He's playing Sibelius!!"
Yes, it was all a bit much, but I was young and it helped to make me a Sibelius nut for life.

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by stevewright » Wed Jul 22, 2015 3:08 am

The View from Here: Bernstein was the most gifted musical polymath of his time, who could and often did do almost anything brilliantly. I won’t address his late recordings here (cf., “Karajan,” above), but many recordings from his New York years show him to be incomparably insightful, others utterly wrong-headed or simply lacking in any affinity for the music. The latter is true of most of his Sibelius recordings.
I'd love clarification on the above - what is wrong-headed or lacking in affinity about Bernstein's NY Sibelius? (I suspect it's something to do with being too Romantic and big-boned...?)
I ask not as a Bernstein fan, but a Sibelius explorer looking towards my next cycle... thanks!

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Re: Sibelius symphonies

Post by stevewright » Wed Jul 22, 2015 4:45 am

Karajan had a special affinity for this work (see Historic and Memorable, below); he captured its unique sound world and paced its four problematic movements better than anyone else before or since.
Hmm... not sure. Listening to HvK's BPO/DG 6th now. It is a performance of great power in certain places, but I am not sure it gets the strangeness, the mysterious creatures and legends swirling around in the depths of the Nordic forests, elsewhere.
He also takes the end of the second movement, with its strange scudding strings - my favourite bit of the whole thing - too fast for me, so it loses strangeness and detail. I do like his third movement though - speed works here, I think.
For an idiomatic and truly atmospheric Sixth, I recommend Petri Sakari/Iceland on Naxos.

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