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SACD Review

Jean Sibelius

  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 43
  • Symphony #5 in E Flat Major, Op. 82
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS SACD-1986 Hybrid Multichannel SACD 78:04
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Given the choice, I slightly prefer this first installment of Osmo Vänskä's Minnesota Sibelius cycle to the second. The latter disc (BIS SACD-1996) was notable for being gorgeously played and recorded, but also surprisingly mannered and almost overly-personalized. This program features the famous Symphony #2 and the well-known Symphony #5. On the whole, it shares the "great sound" part of the last sentence, and is again very well done technically. Unfortunately, this particular issue has a different set of problems than its successor.

If the Symphony #1 from these forces was overly contrasted and thus drew too much attention to the conductor, this Symphony #2 is a touch on the bland side. Vänskä at his best is one of the most naturally exciting conductors on the podium, taking old classics and infusing them with vigor and rhythmic intensity. But as demonstrated on the second disc of this cycle, Vänskä at his less than best can drag and indulge in some odd tempo choices. The latter doesn't really happen here; there's no superficially exciting climaxes that simply blur, or stop-and-start sections that ring false. Rather, there's a peculiar and unexpected lack of energy that drags the Symphony #2 down. This is not a work that can afford to drag, and the Finale – though lovingly played – does absolutely nothing.

Happily, the Symphony #5 almost immediately shows more promise. The warm brass and piquant wind chorales are a far cry from the sleepy Second. This is Vänskä's third recording of the work (if you count both versions in his Lahti Symphony cycle, also on BIS CD-863). I generally don't like when conductors take three cracks at a work – think movie trilogies, folks – but this is a fine performance captured in the same terrific sound, and thankfully the entire affair is much more engaging. The Minnesota Orchestra maintains its reputation as one of the best in America. I don't know many people who would desire a very good Symphony #5 with a pretty mediocre Symphony #2, but if the prospect appeals, by all means indulge.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman