SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

JEAN SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 – Minnesota Orch./ Osmo Vänskä – BIS

Fresh, invigorating approaches to these Sibelius masterworks.

Published on April 26, 2013

JEAN SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 – Minnesota Orchestra/ Osmo Vänskä – BIS multichannel 5.0 SACD BIS-1996, 74:10 (Distr. by Qualiton) ****:

Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä certainly has a clean, authentic approach to the symphonies of his native country’s best known composer. Vänskä has recorded the whole set and then some for BIS with his Lahti Symphony. I have heard some of these recordings, too, and they are magnificent.

This exciting new recording of the First and Fourth symphonies gives us plenty to be happy with as well as a chance to hear the Minnesota Orchestra with music director Vänskä.  These are very fine performances indeed. The Sibelius symphonies, in my opinion, are some of the best, ever in the mainstream classical oeuvre. It is also true, though, that – save the Symphony No. 2 in D – they are not played nearly as often by American orchestras as they should be.

I have always been particularly fond of the First, from its plaintive and somewhat foreboding solo clarinet opening (played here wonderfully by MO principal Burt Hara) to the dark-hued fourth movement whose mood vacillates from despondent to triumphant. The clarinet solo, in fact, supplies the motive that Sibelius uses throughout the work. The final movement does close with a reprise of sorts of some of the big long-line melodies from the second movement. If this were one’s first hearing of the First Symphony, you would certainly be amply rewarded.

The Symphony No. 4 contains some of the same qualities that many consider very Finnish – all traceable to Sibelius. There is a weighty, somewhat ominous beginning; in this case, A minor, a very beautiful and somewhat pastoral second movement and the surprisingly uplifting fourth movement. I have always found the lilting opening to the closing allegro with its quirky use of glockenspiel to be one of the most delightfully unusual moments in all traditional symphonies.

The performances by the Minnesota Orchestra, under the direction of Osmo Vänskä, are great. The BIS sound engineers did their usual fine job. The SACD recording is lively and clear but not artificially so.  This disc makes an equally compelling case for the Sibelius symphonies as it does for the talents of the Minnesota Orchestra – always a fine group but one whose prominence on the national scene has come and gone a little over the past thirty years. Sounds like it’s time for a well-deserved resurgence!

—Daniel Coombs

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