Sibelius
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
“Three Late Fragments” [transcribed by Timo Virtanen]
BBC Philharmonic
John Storgårds

Recorded at MediaCity UK, Salford, England between September 2012 and December 2013
CD No: CHANDOS
CHAN 10809 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 55 minutes
Reviewed: September 2014

Colin Anderson writes... Good news indeed that John Storgårds has recorded Sibelius’s Seven Symphonies ... and also has added “Three Late Fragments” that may give a clue as to what the Eighth Symphony (completed and destroyed or not finished with the sketches and developed material also rid from the world...?) might have been like. More on that conundrum anon.

The third disc in Chandos’s handsome set – superbly played and recorded – contains Symphonies 3, 6 and 7. The former is given with energy and, when required, pensiveness, the opening movement flying along and vividly detailed (recording engineer Stephen Rinker doesn’t miss a trick while giving a wholesome picture of MediaCity’s acoustic) and Storgårds throws off any inhibitions of the ‘red light’ to inspire a lively and vibrant account, deftly, sensitively and powerfully played. The middle movement, marked Andantino con moto, but conducted by Robert Kajanus in the work’s first recording with greater measure than this direction might suggest, and which carries the imprimatur of the composer, finds Storgårds (like Colin Davis used to) following this spacious example, and to beguiling effect. Strength of purpose, a penchant for what might considered as Sibelius’s enigmatic withdrawals, a flexibility that also respects Sibelius’s rigorous structures, and an X-Ray concern for what is written on the page, come together for a thrilling and story-telling Symphony 3: the BBC Philharmonic giving its all for its principal-guest maestro, a man with a very distinctive view of this wonderful music. The “cold water” of the mysterious Sixth opens in the loveliest of terms, with dynamics pared down, such peace, and what follows enjoys lucidity and lightness of touch and the conjuring of frosty images. It’s a work difficult to get to know (I started with Paavo Berglund’s Bournemouth recording, old enough now to have been an LP, and a door-opening version) but the rewards are many. Perhaps Storgårds is a little too static in his pacing of the second movement, but there is a generosity and a textural edge throughout that is affecting. As for the great Seventh, Sibelius’s ultimate goal to create a concentrated single-movement Symphony with all of the genre’s characteristics present, finds Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic somewhat tension-less; it’s all very beautiful and lovingly shaped, but curiously leaden too, without the mysticism and journeying that should also be present; and if this is not the most organic of readings (surely though that is a pre-requisite of any Sibelius 7 performance) and lacking a commanding sense of overcoming adversity, then there is much in the detailing that makes amends.

On CD 2, the Second Symphony begins in careful fashion, broader than many conductors; once again, though, detailing and playing is fastidious, and the second movement, opening with bass pizzicatos, really feeds the senses. Overall, there is much that is glorious if not quite lifting the listener beyond an expansive view of the score, thoroughly expert and sympathetic, of course, but not the most involving and uplifting. A different matter with the remarkable Fifth – given a totally compelling, perfectly integrated outing, at once poised, clear- and long-sighted, bristling with detail and with a warmth and clarity in the sound that makes for edge-of-seat listening. The ultimate coda, here made massive, is inexorable.

The first disc includes a First Symphony that is heroic, full of thrilling swirls (and excellent timpani), and if Storgårds can sometimes indulge passages, such as the here-trudging opening of the second movement (nice to hear the harp so clearly though), then better this than a literal reading, for Storgårds throughout this survey shows much imagination for and intimacy with the music. The scherzo has real rhythmic impetus, and the “fantasia” finale, opening here with operatic intensity and expressive largesse, smoulders awhile before getting into its exciting stride, the ‘big tune’ given with ample phrases and deep tone. The great – if dark and despondent – Fourth Symphony finds Storgårds at-one with Sibelius’s symphonism and deep emotion, the music’s pain, edge and blackness. Sibelius, in 1910, was facing serious illness and other troubles (and was also denied his favourite cigars and whisky), and although first and foremost the work is a Symphony, with all that is implied by the hallowed title, it is also a reflection of one man’s travails. As a reviewer’s postscript, Storgårds uses a glockenspiel in the finale – some conductors opt for tubular bells – and makes no (unmarked anyway) ritardando in the final bars: and what a difference such straightforwardness makes to the tragedy enshrined in this music.

As for the “Three Late Fragments” (1930-57, Sibelius died in 1957), whether destined for the (lost, presumed destroyed) Eighth Symphony, well each is fascinating, and if the total playing time is less than three minutes, then there is enough to suggest that Sibelius seemed to be on a course of modernism (the first Fragment) and sparseness. Intriguing... and what might have been. Timo Virtanen discusses these few pages, and their deciphering, in the booklet.

Edward Clark writes... Chandos, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic have pre-emptied the 150th-celebration year of 2015 by getting in early with this blockbuster set by that “aristocrat of symphonists”, Jean Sibelius. Storgårds is a middle generation Finn with great Sibelian credentials. However this seems to be a cycle that displays Storgårds in two different lights, one brighter than the other when offering illumination onto a complex series of Symphonies in which no-one can expect complete interpretative perfection.

Perhaps strangely he comes up short in the popular Symphonies, numbers 1, 2, 5 and 7. They are by no means easy to conduct. Take the Second Symphony. Here the first movement takes over ten minutes thereby robbing the music of its natural impetus and drive. The result is rather matter of fact instead of offering the listener an appreciation of the turmoil going on in Sibelius’s life whilst sketching and writing the work, initially in Italy then back home in Helsinki. The performance is well crafted but lacking in drama and pathos.

The First Symphony has more drive but is let down by details, not least a very slow introduction and the exaggerated final few bars. The music never springs from the page as it should. The more complex Fifth Symphony is marred by a lack of flow between the differing tempos Sibelius creates during the work, not least the transition to the scherzo-like section in the first movement. It all sounds a little too studied. The Seventh Symphony seems modelled on a description of it being “Sibelius’s Parsifal”. Well if it is then this rendition will appeal. If, however, it is more a testament to human weakness and suffering and how sheer willpower can win through then this is a soft-centred rendition that simply does no justice to the power of the music. Sibelius stayed up all night drinking whisky and was found every morning by his wife slumped over his desk. The struggle of the composer in trying to define and set down what his imagination was hearing is nowhere to be heard in Storgårds’s interpretation. For that you must listen to Colin Davis or Evgeny Mravinsky.

Now to the plus side of this set of unimaginable masterworks. Symphonies 3, 4 and 6 receive superb performances. Storgårds shows great perception in penetrating these truly enigmatic works. The Third opens with tremendous energy, not too rushed but full of life and optimism. The music is under firm control so allowing the darker passages to emerge naturally. So too in the underestimated middle movement, often taken at too fast an initial tempo thereby denying the music real stature. The finale becomes a joyous celebration of re-birth with an exhilarating coda. The Fourth Symphony has sensible tempos throughout allowing the music to breathe and make its necessary impact on our shattered consciousness. Many people avoid this work. Indeed it remains a strange bedfellow to Sibelius’s other Symphonies. Sibelius never wrote anything like it before or after. He offers his unwary listeners no warning from earlier works and never re-visits the interior landscape again. To many it is his masterpiece in both form and substance. Storgårds is uncompromising in his control. This is one of the great recordings of the Fourth Symphony, alongside Colin Davis and Osmo Vänskä.

But the jewel in the crown must be the miraculous Sixth. Here we have a superb view of a neglected masterpiece; nothing is out of place, dynamics are immaculately observed and the whole work appears as an apparition of beauty set in an often ugly world. No-one excels Storgårds for revealing this score’s spiritual delights, for some admirers the most truly representative of Sibelius’s gifts as a master symphonist.

I think this is the best sound-quality for the cycle that we have ever had. I do feel the timpani are let-go too often and sometimes the woodwinds appear suddenly out of nowhere before disappearing back into the general ambience. But the sheer excellence of capturing Sibelian sonority is exemplary. So too the playing of the BBC Philharmonic, which surely benefited from having performed the cycle at concerts with Storgårds before taking it into the studio. The players seem to have absorbed the music into their bones.

To summarise, Storgårds achieves wonders in the most enigmatic works and never gives less than his best in the others. Among Finnish-conducted cycles this ranks highly, though not quite up to the extraordinary standards of Berglund in Bournemouth or Vänskä in Lahti. Beyond Finland we have treasure-trove from Colin Davis, John Barbirolli, Anthony Collins and Simon Rattle, to mention only four possibilities. For sheer sound, Storgårds is the best; and if he has a way to go interpretatively he never fails through dubious taste or temperament.

 

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