Why is it that this long-awaited Sibelius cycle from Paavo Järvi, historic for being the first to be recorded by a French orchestra, is not as globally satisfying as we might have hoped for? Certainly, you can't fault the playing: the Orchestre de Paris is one of the finest around, a large-scale enterprise with distinguished principals, and a rank-and-file committed to the task. No shirking, no ragged corners. A virtuoso ensemble that takes pride in listening to itself. Nor – while one may subjectively prefer the airier northern venues and bardic 'Scandinavian' imaging of certain other Sibelius cycles (Paris's Salle Pleyel, no more, is comparatively warm, denser [Symphonies 1, 6, 7], the Philharmonie dispassionately clinical [2-5 inclusive]) – can one fault the frequently spectacular engineering and post-production, an experienced, strong French team at the helm.
The dates in the small print suggest a clue. Yes, these are 'live' performances, but not necessarily continuous ones, each work being patched from pairs of concerts. Conceivably, if needed (clean topping and tailing, for instance), from the dress rehearsals also. It's not a new practice, it makes logistical sense: 'live' takes, a hazardous business, can be fraught with unforeseen glitches and errors of the moment. But it comes at a price. You may well get the notes, the accuracy, but are phrases, paragraphs, complete? Do they end as, in situ, they began? Is the tempo line, the dynamic graph, the tension maintained? Faced with a choice of takes, a palette of inflections and nuances, an artist, the producer – wittingly, unwittingly – can radically change the nature and mood of an interpretation. It takes milliseconds to switch from lyricism to abrasiveness. In lieu of a production plot to confirm one's suspicions, this may explain the transient uneasiness and jolts met in passages of these Symphonies. Artfully masked for sure yet still lurking within the fabric – the sudden (needless) acceleration into Fig.11 of the first movement of the Third Symphony (5:37) is one example that got me wondering. A phenomenon defying replication, it's an inescapable truism that the theatre, structural energy, pulse and chemistry of one performance will never exactly be the same as another.
Symphony 1 was the first of the series to be recorded. On the plus side Järvi sculpts lengthy paragraphs of breathed, richly weighted string tone and climax, the harmonic foundations dug from deep within, the darker corners of Sibelius's landscape intensely personalised. Despite his first clarinet appearing initially reluctant to join in the mysterium of the journey, he unfolds an unspecified drama, wanting, if not to the charged extent of his father, Neeme (Gothenburg), to identify with what he calls “the poetic, romantic and youthful mind of the composer.” On the other hand, the repeated emphasis on Sibelius's timpani-writing, prophetic though that writing is, and while bringing incisive benefits to the Scherzo, is arguably a drawback, creating, in the many more forceful passages of the score, a belligerent, congested, aggressively spot-lit characterisation. At its most forward, a reverbed ‘concerto’ for timpani, bass drum, strings and accompaniment crosses the mind. Physically arresting though this might be in small doses, I'm not persuaded that's what Sibelius was after.
Symphony 2. Järvi envisions this cumulatively as another hymn of the North. But his performance is not without some coarseness (the Finale's trumpet fanfares). Nor some agitated swells. Consider the opening eight bars, more especially the dynamic hairpins. Järvi accelerates. The hardcore of Kajanus (1930, quicker overall), Mariss Jansons, Kitajenko, Segerstam, Barbirolli, Beecham, Colin Davis, Järvi senior (one can go on) steady/savour/dignify the beat. Bernstein liked to hold back. Two years on, with the Estonian Festival Orchestra at the 2017 Baltic Sea Festival, Järvi moderated his stance, achieving a grander overall reading, rough edges notwithstanding, combined with a more deeply grounded closing peroration. This said, the voltage, attack and expressive tension, the lyric delirium, of his Philharmonie Scherzo sets the bar clearly high. The majestic paragraphing and modal legend of the Finale, the exultant blaze of an Asgardian panorama to take on Wagner, kettledrums rattling and thundering, have the thrill factor.
Symphony 3. Attending the first of the Third's two performances in March 2016, I was struck by the strength and clarity Järvi brought to the music. “As danger works go”, I wrote at the time (for Classical Source), “the Third is a minefield, an unforgiving jigsaw pitted with solo and group traps, disjointed fragments of melody, and pages of seeming chaos going nowhere. The eventual C-major catharsis of the outer movements is not easily won. [But come] the end you felt you'd been on an epic, magnificent journey.” This was one of the triumphs of Järvi's Paris tenure, and it glows and boils as a recording. The sprung rhythms and brisk tempo, the bite of the cellos, double basses and violas (right of conductor), the sense of every attack, harmony and drone rasping through the hall like so many ancestral voices uplifted in chorus, make for a muscular encounter, the whole variously imbued with an essence Järvi sees as “nostalgically rooted to the North.” Nothing remotely 'small' or lightweight. The elation is invigorating to re-live.
Symphony No.4. In the booklet notes Järvi strives to make sense of this austere, introverted, dark canvas, Sibelius's self-confessed “psychological symphony.” “You have so many choices that you need to make: either to try and make it coherent or to appreciate those gaps and big mood-swings. The melodic material doesn't always lead to the place you expect it to, and very often it leads simply to silence … This is music which stays with you for several days.” Simplistically, he conducts it for what it is: wraiths of melody and accompaniment, jagged phrases, dramatic peaks, bleak night shadows, snarling storms, flashes of colour and light, icy pools, the whole spectrum placed, breathing and dynamically electric. With the second movement Sibelius invites us momentarily within – and Järvi takes us kindly by the hand. He's at home in this world, and there is little to impede, the many solos (the Finale's not least) delivered with personality and bravado, the tuttis thrown like so many sharpened axes. A soundtrack waiting a film director…
Symphony 5. Paavo Järvi hasn't always had the best of fortunes with the Fifth. It's a hard piece to hold together, not least the patchwork construction of the revised version's 'first' movement, witness his Estonian players coming close to being fazed by its intricacies at last year’s Proms. This Paris account makes the most of the set-pieces, with strings, brass and timpani keenly focussed in the recording mix. Possibly, however, Sibelius's reiterated 3/4 'scherzo' patternings incline to drag, the voltage slipping. But the Andante mosso stays the course, the pizzicato element shaped and sonorous, the sign-off elegantly courteous. The Finale eventually roars its great 'swan/hammer' tune, double basses snapping their bows, the whole vista spreading across the plain like an estuary in flood, the closing dominant/tonic columns powered home at the unison, double-attacked drums resounding with Beethovenian defiance. I'm less comfortable with the tempo adjustment in the eight bars before Letter G (2:50) – Järvi managed this more gracefully with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2013 – but it's a small quibble.
Symphony 6. Järvi thinks of this as a transitional essay in the sense of Beethoven's Fourth and Eighth Symphonies, as, quoting an early review, a “poem within the framework of a symphony.” Sibelius thought of it as “cold spring water”, “the scent of new snow”. Alert to nuance and articulation, Järvi, anticipating the Fourth Symphony, the last of this cycle to be recorded, finds colours, delicacies, silences and primordial strength, fashioning intimate lockets and driven chapters, emphasising at every opportunity Sibelius's imagination as an orchestrator, mapping narrative regions removed from the Strausses, Stravinskys or Schoenbergs of the day. In a work without any real slow movement, he achieves variety and contrast through a careful balancing and demarcation of pigments and textures – here raw and exposed, there blended, in more than a few places (especially the Finale) sampling curious terracings of vaguely classical strings (divertimento) and harmonie (serenade). By the end it all just dies away on a lone D (violins) – not the first or last quiet finish to a Symphony but rarely one so pared down, silence taking over from incident.
Symphony 7. “The opening … gives you the feeling of walking in a deep forest surrounded by giant trees, stepping on crackling, dry twigs.” Short in length (21:32 here), mighty in statement, a sub-divided symphonic single-movement fusion of poem and fantasia, the Seventh, Järvi acknowledges, is “one of the most complicated and difficult works to do justice to in performance.” If he succeeds it's largely because of his honesty to the page. Refusing to be interventionist, he trusts Sibelius's writing, he welds fragments into melodies, he makes his harmonic philosophy a significant issue, he builds climaxes and tonal affirmations from an infra-fundamental basis, each root-tone setting instruments and platform into yet lower sympathetic vibration. The release of energy in the concluding C-major pages is cosmic – as much a golden dawn as an ermine farewell, a cathedral no less than a sweep of tundra under blue Arctic skies.
For Sibelius his Symphonies were no one thing. “Music conceived and worked out in terms of music and with no literary basis”. “An expression of a spiritual creed, a phase in one’s inner life.” “Mental images.” Rivers born of “countless tributaries.” Such is the backcloth to Järvi's approach, such is the spirit that, in the best of these performances, he has infused into his orchestra. “A real labour of love”, he's called the experience.