Over the decades, conductors have shown us many different views of Sibeliuss symphonies the man of austere vigour (Kajanus) or Russian opulence (Koussevitzky, Barbirolli's Symphony No.1), the foreign visitor to Edwardian summer heat (Beecham), the smooth, silky Austrian cool yet romantic (Karajan); the neutrally-coloured objective (Saraste or Salonen) and the dynamic Brahmsian (from the hot-blooded Finn, Leif Segerstam, now on his second set of complete symphonies). There's Romantic Sibelius, Classical Sibelius, at-one-with-nature Sibelius, brashly nationalistic Sibelius, dark-hearted-in-the-lonely-hours Sibelius and less familiar, maybe the law-unto-himself Sibelius: the reclusive, profoundly innovative composer who resembles no one else. Moreover, each of the seven symphonies is unlike any other. To do a worthwhile job, any conductor working on a complete set has to penetrate to the highly individual core of each symphony. Of complete sets, Neeme Järvi's is the most recent to be released (late 2005); Sixten Ehrling's complete version (which provides my chief comparison) is the earliest integral of all, 1952-53, recorded in Stockholm, with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic [Finlandia 3984-22713-2].
Neeme Järvi gives the symphonies a new, shining appearance glossy and ear-catching. Clearly, he has made a meticulous reappraisal of each score. His mission is to make the score manifest, and his interpretative manner makes it clear that he holds bar lines, marked tempos and musical phrases in the highest respect. For example, in some movements (like the first movement of the Second Symphony), the themes are laid out neatly and systematically. The move from one phrase, or mood, to another is carefully delineated that is both methodical and earthy. The technique is almost cinematic. (Its more a case of jump-cutting from one scene to the next than gently interspersing a 'wipe' or 'dissolve'. In the Fifth Symphony's first movement, where Sibelius sets out, in a bridge passage, to meet his originally separate second movement, Järvis gear change is swift and abrupt.)
Correspondingly, the Gothenburg Symphony plays in a rather clipped fashion, with little vibrato. One bonus is that the instruments and phrases come through clearly and sharply such as the rare but nevertheless effective harp (as in the Sixth) and the thematic strands in several contrapuntal passages. Fleet tempos and correspondingly shorter phrase-lengths ensure that interest is unlikely to flag. The symphonies lose their heavier, romantic tones regarded, no doubt, as integral by many of Sibelius's contemporaries but (paradoxically) by later commentators as embarrassing and outdated. I, for one, am happy to dispense with Sibelius performances whose slow movements wallow turgidly. On the other hand, Järvi's versions do seem to lack the bloom that characterises, say, Beechams or Ehrlings.
Neeme Järvi cares equally about text, instrumentation and lucid presentation. His performances are careful and caring admirably committed, conscientious yet earthy. I was particularly gripped by the sustained opening to the Fifth Symphony. Here, instead of the usual brief phrases, Järvi sees the need for long, steady progress determined, purposeful and accumulative. There is, however, a downside to such a careful approach: the results are often earthbound. Despite plenty of energy, the fire is missing. For example, the swelling, romantic melody in the last movement of the First comes across as large, weighty and of import. Yet it failed to excite. Steady preparation had primed the senses for a surging, dynamic theme. Under Järvi, the theme has grandeur, but no life. (Ehrling's more traditional approach highlights the fire of the young Sibelius's genius that dark, subterranean fire of the earth's creation; Ehrlings Fourth is likewise urgent and thrilling.) Similarly, with Järvi, those last great chords of the Fifth Symphony are rather perfunctory. There is no thrill or suspense, no tingling, no tense anticipation of the next blow in what ranks among the most terse and explosive of musical terminations. The silence after each great blast should quiver and shimmer. It does not. Go to Segerstam for that.
Despite my reservations, there is much to enjoy in Järvis set. In the Second Symphony, I found the playing of the first movement's opening inconsequential; but thereafter its a fine performance. The slow movement is effective the music is modest and scurrying, as if keeping itself too busy to become maudlin or pretentious. The tone becomes more and more grand, rising, in effect, to a sustained and imposing climax over two movements. I like the first movement of the Third both the tempo and the tone of seriously-considered lightness. I prefer some weight in the second movement (Kajanus): to my mind, Järvi is inconsequential and disrespectfully pastoral; I like more bite in the finale (Ehrling by contrast is vibrant, arresting and astonishingly exciting). Järvis Fourth gains weight through being so vividly recorded.; the playing, too, is superb. At the conclusion, though, I felt that both playing and engineering skills were all that had been presented. For some idea of its brooding prophecy on the cellos, its pulsating darkness, its enigma, its terse grandeur and its huge elemental power, you have to go to Ehrling.
Many conductors find the Sixth Symphony 'difficult': it seems elusive rather than forthright, delicate rather than robust. Unlike symphonies 1 and 4, its minor key sections are not tough, gutsy, turbulent or sombre. Not so Järvi: as if without warning, he hits the bulls-eye in this 'lightweight' effusion from a 'heavyweight' composer, setting the tone beautifully. Unhurriedly but deliberately, the orchestra eases itself into framing a poised, graceful minor-key statement music of a refined and dignified sadness. The ensuing Allegro molto moderato has its dark moments allusions to darkness, made manifest through exquisite yet measured lightness. Much of this effect is derived from keen attention to instrumental colour and from settling on a tempo lively enough never to drag yet not so fast to compromise articulation. The music breathes; we can enjoy, admire and respect Sibelius's sparing but telling orchestration note the effect of a couple of bars from the timpani, a bar from the harpist, the strings' vivid, tensile pizzicato. I find the symphony's ending piercingly moving: we lightly touch on a lightly-scored, lightly-stated sadness of definite yet infinite presence. I listened to this performance three times: the magic worked on each occasion.
Elsewhere on this set, many isolated movements work. With Ehrling, I found the reverse, on several occasions turning to his surging rawness as relief from Järvi's more measured perfection. To Ehrling, also, for the single-movement Seventh Symphony. Compare the trombone entries: Ehrling's are pronounced and foreboding, however brief (yet not over-emphatic or lusciously romanticised like Bernsteins); Järvi's trombones pass by almost inaudibly, barely declaring their presence. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra does not match the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra technically. (Incidentally, its brass was fascinatingly harsh and raw giving the music a rough, elemental brutality, not unwelcome.) Nevertheless, the Stockholm Philharmonic plays with an impassioned sense of the music's greatness something I infer that the Gothenburg SO was not invited to convey. The issue may be whether or not the orchestra's music-making is allowed to include ardour and spontaneity.