SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5 & 7 cond. by Leonard Bernstein – Blu-ray (2015)
Performers: Vienna Philharmonic/ Leonard Bernstein
Studio: Unitel/C Major [Distr. by Naxos] (11/13/15)
Director: Humphrey Burton
Video: 1080i color for 16 x 9 (Symphonies 1, 5 & 7) 4 x 3: Sym. 2
Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1, PCM Stereo
Extras: Previews of other Unitel releases
Video: *** Audio: ****
Superb Sibelius from the ‘80s with Bernstein.
In the mid 1980s, Unitel began recording a complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. Bernstein’s death in 1990 unfortunately cut short this project after the release of Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 7. Now, these 4 symphonies have been released on a single Blu-ray disc with an option to listen in multi-channel sound.
While the Blu-ray release is new, these performances had earlier incarnations on DVD, and I remember some of the Unitel discs being released on Laserdisc back in the day.
Bernsein, like von Karajan and Barbirolli, was a champion of Sibelius’ music, and he recorded a well-regarded set of the symphonies in the sixties. It’s a shame Bernstein did not complete this more recent survey of the symphonies, but what we have is a stunning portrait of the conductor’s very personal interpretation, with some wonderful musicianship by the Vienna Philharmonic.
Dating from the eighties, don’t expect a high definition tape transfer. These are filmed concerts, but the video quality is quite high, even if occasionally we see some white flecks from the film negative. It’s not quite up to the quality of the latest HD video, but it’s close enough. The concerts were shot with multiple cameras and then edited later. All the symphonies are in 16×9 aspect ratio except, inexplicably, the Second Symphony, which is 4×3.
The audio is quite natural. The orchestra is not closely-miked, and I like the result. Strings are very smooth. Horns are well-etched. The recording lacks the deepest bass of modern productions, but otherwise this is a fine overall effort. When you first play the disc, the audio defaults to a PCM stereo track, but there is an option for DTS 5.1. I doubt the concerts were originally recorded in full surround, so I suspect the track is derived from the stereo material. The surround tracks are low in volume, and I preferred to listen to the 2.0 tracks as being closer to the original intent. [They can be run thru a pseudo-surround decoder…Ed.]
Bernstein was a great advocate of video in the service of musical art. His Young Peoples Concerts were a triumphant example, and he believed in capturing as much of his conducting on video as possible. Bernstein is fascinating to watch as he interacts with an orchestra. His expressions show joy, and at times displeasure with what he is hearing.
This is a fine disc, with memorable performances. Unitel is to be congratulated for allowing a new generation to savor these concerts in the superior Blu-ray format. Recommended!