SACD fans shouldn’t rejoice that Universal is back to issuing once again in the hi-res format, because – aside from the Mercury Living Presence Series – they are not. This was a 2005 release which due to a long story not worth repeating we are just getting around to now. The set of four discs in cardboard sleeves inside a small box did well in Europe – in fact classical SACDs in general do well there, unlike in the U.S. – and it was probably decided to release them in the U.S. as well. It’s interesting that Järvi recorded the seven symphonies over 20 years ago with the same orchestra for BIS, but of course this new set benefits from being the only one in SACD surround, and is priced at 4 discs for the cost of 3.
As revealed in the Christopher Nupen film DVD which we recently reviewed,
Sibelius developed and modified his conception of symphonic design over the span of his seven symphonies – covering a quarter of a century. Nos. 1 & 2 are strongly nationalistic in nature, written during a period when Finland was under the thumb of Czarist Russia and not at all happy with its lot. The First evokes ancient Finnish culture something like the Sibelius tone poems. The Second is probably the composer’s best-known symphony, completed in 1902. It follows a victory-thru-struggle musical plot line, is full of fine melodies, rich string-section writing, and wraps up everything with a joyous celebration of a final movement conclusion.
With the Third Symphony Sibelius begins to change his nationalistic style toward a more concise and severe design, keeping it and the following symphonies all around ten minutes shorter in length than No. 2. He wanted to avoid the monumentalism of the Second, writing a more “modern” style of symphony. Although the work is in C Major, it is definitely not the light and tuneful symphony of No. 2. The Fourth is even more modern and sombre in tone, seeming to conjure up desolate Northern landscapes.
In his last three symphonies Sibelius strove to capture the still nature around his rustic forest retreat 25 miles from Helsinki. This meditative, nature-centered aesthetic permeates the symphonies Nos. 5, 6 & 7. The last is the composer’s most highly individual statement and the shortest of all the symphonies. In one movement and subtitled a “Fantasia sinfonica,” the work encompasses a world of symphonic thought and a huge range of emotional expression.
There is no shortage of competing Sibelius Symphony sets to this one if you ignore the SACD exclusivity. Some of the top contenders would be Colin Davis on Philips, Osmo Vanska conducting the Lahti orchestra on BIS, and Paavo Berglund with the Helsinki Philharmonic on EMI Seraphim. Sibelius himself conducted the Gothenburg Symphony, and the DGG set reveals the orchestra to be right up there with the best of the world’s orchestras. The performances are full of life and expression, the equal of some of the individual recordings I have on SACD by the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony. The familiar last movement of the Fifth, with its “swinging hammer” theme, was glorious in its sweep and drama – one of my favorite moments in the whole set. Järvi’s Seventh runs longer than most of the competing versions but it flows along so beautifully and makes more musical sense out of this complex work. It may be the best of the excellent complete set.
Like both of the London series, the first two symphonies of the Järvi set were recorded live – though the audience is dead quiet. The 48K/24-bit PCM multichannel format was used for recording all the symphonies. Sonics are good, with a wide range of dynamics and fine feeling of the hall’s acoustics, though not quite to the level of the very best 96K multichannel SACDs. The strings are just a bit richer on both of the London orchestral recordings (both of them included the Seventh for comparison with Järvi’s), but the string playing of Järvi’s musicians is very clean and well-deliniated. The only one of the symphonies that I find bested on another recording in my collection was No. 2. And it’s a very old recording – a Columbia prerecorded tape by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra – can’t beat those Philly strings, even with a bit of hiss. It just has a modicum more exhilaration than Järvi’s. Otherwise I find the DGG SACD set well worth owning, especially for hi-res surround-sound-for-music fans!
– John Sunier