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CD Review

Jean Sibelius

RCA 10858
  • Symphony #1 in E minor, Op. 39 (two recordings)
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 43 (two recordings)
  • Symphony #4 in A minor, Op. 63
  • Symphony #5 in E Flat Major, Op. 82
  • Symphony #7 in C Major, Op. 105 (two recordings)
  • Concerto for Violin & Orchestra in D Major, Op. 47 1
  • Concerto for Violin & Orchestra in D Major, Op. 47 2
  • Overture to Karelia
  • Suite from Karelia (two recordings)
  • En saga (two recordings)
  • Finlandia, Op. 26 (three recordings) 3
  • Kuolema: Valse triste, Op. 44 #1 (two recordings)
  • The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 #3 (two recordings)
  • The Oceanides, Op. 73
  • Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49
  • Tapiola, Op. 112
1 Isaac Stern, violin
2 Dylana Jenson, violin
3 The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
RCA Masters 88875108582 8CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Well, just when you think that Sony/RCA is basically dead, they release really important boxes like this one. For the record, it's not Ormandy's complete Sibelius, but every work he recorded in stereo for Columbia and RCA is represented. His monophonic recordings of Symphonies #4 and #5 are not here, but Sony has treated the Ormandy legacy so badly that it's hardly a surprise. RCA has done him even less service, with most of his titles out of print or stuck in Japan. ArkivMusic at least makes them domestically available through their reprint program, but it takes a lot of work to get your hands on the legacy of one of classical music's best-selling recording artists.

Generally speaking, the RCA recordings are inferior to the earlier Columbia versions. However, both recordings of the First are excellent, while neither recording of the Second really tops my list, so to speak. In the Seventh, the later RCA recording features less tinkering with the orchestration, but the earlier Columbia version finds a younger Ormandy in better form. Stern's reading of the Violin Concerto finds deeper meaning in the work than Jenson does, though it's wonderful to have this latter recording back in print. A third version with David Oistrakh is also not here; I imagine that Sony didn't wish to put three versions of one work in a box (but then how do you explain the "One-Rite-to-a-Disc" ten disc Stravinsky tribute?!) The tone poems are all excellent – and yes, there are three Finlandia, now that you mention it – with one featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Sure, there's a sentimental value for older collectors, but I prefer the orchestra-only versions, and you still get two of those.

As I have previously written here, Ormandy's devotion to the composer helped to shape a major part of his vast recorded legacy. Though it's easy to forget about him today – younger collectors barely know of him at all – his ability to shape the Philadelphia Orchestra into a powerhouse shaped the musical tastes of listeners for decades. There are no liner notes, but recording dates are helpfully provided on each sleeve and on the box. The sound, never amazing for the Columbia sessions and always questionable on RCA, seems to have been given some attention and is perfectly acceptable. Along with Bernstein's Columbia cycle – featuring the New York Philharmonic and reissued last year in "Original Jacket" format – listeners old and new can thank Sony/RCA/BMG (whatever) for their celebration of Sibelius and for the opportunity to revisit the work of their greatest artists.

Copyright © 2016, Brian Wigman