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CD Review

Jean Sibelius

  • Symphony #1 in E minor, Op. 39
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 43
  • Symphony #3 in C Major, Op. 52
  • Symphony #4 in A minor, Op. 63
  • Symphony #5 in E Flat Major, Op. 82
  • Symphony #6 in D minor, Op. 104
  • Symphony #7 in C Major, Op. 105
  • Luonnotar, for Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 70 2
  • Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49
  • Finlandia, Op. 26
  • Kuolema: Valse triste, Op. 44 #1
  • The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 #3 3
  • Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 47 1
  • Edvard Grieg:
  • Peer Gynt Suite #1, Op. 46
  • Peer Gynt Suite #2, Op. 55
  • Max Bruch: Concerto for Violin #1 in G Minor, Op. 26 1,4
1 Zino Francescatti, violin
2 Phyllis Curtin, soprano
3 Thomas Stacy, English horn
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
4 New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
Sony Classical 8887-502614-2 7CDs
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When I was in high school, Original Jacket sets were all the rage. Decca and Deutsche Grammophon had their "Originals" series, and Sony/BMG was releasing all kinds of stuff in similar garb. Especially on Sony's end, the projects were expensive and – while featuring upgraded sonics – failed to capture the imagination of consumers. Somehow, the whole concept is all the rage a decade later. To the credit of everyone involved, Sony has really done collectors a service by bringing back long-overdue items to the catalog. First there was the Stokowski box, then Freire (as an import), and then Martinon in Chicago. Instead of just giving us the same stuff we have in a different outfit, Sony is generally giving us items we really want, albeit in the original clothes. Yes, this means that the play times are pretty short, but most of these recordings are so hard to find that we are willing to suffer.

These excellent Sibelius recordings are a little different. In various forms, these versions have been available since the advent of CDs. However, there is no question that the claim of re-mastering in legitimate. Side-by-side comparisons with the Royal Edition and Essential Classics issues reveal more genuine sound reproduction. I won't be ditching the later disc, if only because Bernstein's #5 comes with Ormandy's drop dead gorgeous #1. Still, better is better, and the work that went into making these readings sound their best must have been considerable. Although the "original jacket" concept is rather hit and miss here – several Symphonies get stuck with the complete LP set's generic cover – it does mean we get the tone poems and some other Romantic stuff. It's especially nice to see both Zino Francescatti and Thomas Schippers get a nod; they were stalwarts of the Columbia catalog who have basically been forgotten today.

Bernstein remains remarkably competitive in all of the music here. Seen during his lifetime as someone who indulged too much in his personal vision, it's curious how often he stays faithful to the vision of the composers at hand. Columbia was always fairly lucky with Sibelius, with fine Seconds from the aforementioned Ormandy and Schippers. Szell's live 1970 take from Japan is also very special. But of all the studio Seconds ever made, this Bernstein version can easily rank with the absolute best ever, and everything else is not far behind. The tonal roughness of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra seems more of a character trait than a flaw these days, and like Bernstein's conducting, has undergone reevaluation. Now that we can actually hear the Fifth so clearly, it emerges as an exceptionally fine performance. Ditto for the conductor's Sixth, where he sticks to the score to create a memorable experience. The tone poems are equally fine, even if Phyllis Curtin is an acquired taste. The orchestra-only poems leave little to be desired. As for the concertos, they are both outstanding, and deserve to be heard by anyone believes in this music.

At this price, there's nothing in the set I wouldn't recommend. Bernstein unsurprisingly brings swagger to the Grieg, and the Suites are great fun. There are many, many ways to tackle the Symphonies, and this take-no-prisoners approach is both valid and thrilling. With cycles by Berglund, Davis, and Blomstedt at a similar price point, collectors can explore this music at a very reasonable cost.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman