Sibelius: 7 Symphonies - Kamu
BIS BIS-2076 (3 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1898–99, rev. 1900)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901–02)
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1904–07)
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1909–11)
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1914–15, rev. 1916 & 1919)
Symphony No. 6 (in D minor), Op. 104 (1922–23)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1923–24)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Okko Kamu (conductor)
During this 150th anniversary year of Jean Sibelius, his music is being performed and discussed more widely than ever, and complete cycles of his symphonies are programmed by orchestras around the world. As might be expected, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, noted for its numerous and often revelatory Sibelius recordings, is no exception. The seven symphonies will all be performed at the 2015 edition of the orchestra’s annual Sibelius Festival, but with its principal conductor Okko Kamu the Lahti band has also prepared a special birthday present for their great compatriot.
Recorded between 2012 and 2014, the symphony cycle included in the present box set is the orchestra’s second traversal on disc – the first one, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, forms the backbone of the BIS Sibelius Edition. This new anniversary cycle is released as a boxed set of three SACDs with a surround sound option, and is accompanied by an ample (+ 80 pages) booklet with informative notes by Andrew Barnett, author of a Sibelius biography. This is the first Sibelius cycle recorded by Okko Kamu – something which makes him quite unique among the many Finnish conductors with an international standing.
Kamu first came to international notice when he won the Karajan Competition in 1969 and later conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the first three of Sibelius's symphonies for inclusion in Karajan's Sibelius cycle on Deutsche Gramophone. Needless to say, he has conducted these works numerous times since then, in Finland and abroad, but has never before put his name to a complete cycle on disc. A previous recording by the Lahti/Kamu team may raise certain expectations, however: released in 2011, the recording of Sibelius’s Tapiola and two Tempest Suites was awarded a Diapason d’Or de l’Année, as well as distinctions such as 5 Stelle (Musica), Opus d’Or (opushd.net) and 10/10 (ClassicsToday.com).
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Recorded in May 2012 (Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3 I/II); January 2013 (Symphony No. 3 III; Symphony No. 7); May 2013 (Symphony No. 2); January 2014 (Symphony No. 5); January/February 2014 (Symphony No. 6); May 2014 (Symphony No. 4) at the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland, 24/96
Produced by Martin Nagorni
Sound engineers: Fabian Frank (Symphonies Nos. 1, 3-7); Andreas Ruge (Symphony No. 2)
Equipment: BIS’s recording teams use microphones from Neumann and Schoeps, audio electronics from RME, Lake People and DirectOut, MADI optical cabling technology, monitoring equipment from B&W, STAX and Sennheiser, and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations.
Post-production: Editing: Martin Nagorni
Mixing: Fabian Frank
Project adviser: Andrew Barnett
Executive producer: Robert von Bahr
- Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
- Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
- Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52
- Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63
- Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82
- Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104
- Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
Review by Mark Novak - November 24, 2015
The release of this complete set of Sibelius symphonies is a testament to BIS’s total commitment to this composer as well as a tribute to conductor Okko Kamu. BIS already has a highly regarded complete set conducted by Osmo Vanska with the Lahti orchestra on RBCD and is in the process of a second complete traversal from Vanska with Minnesota on SACD (syms 3,6 & 7 yet to come). Not only that but BIS also has an even earlier complete RBCD set of the symphonies conducted by Neeme Jarvi with the Gothenberg Symphony in their stable making a total of four complete sets (once the Vanska/Minnesota is completed). I used to have the Jarvi set in my collection but it is now gone – hence, I won’t rely on my memory of it in this review.
There is plenty of competition for this new Kamu set (both as individual releases and as complete sets) so it is a monumental task to estimate where this new set fits in the pantheon. You won’t get that in this review – I’ll leave that pronouncement to others. However, what you will get is a more narrow view with comparisons to both Vanska performances and to Segerstam/Ondine RBCD for which I have a particular fondness. To kick things off, here are the movement timings for this comparison set:
K/L = Kamu/Lahti
V/M = Vanska/Minnesota
V/L = Vanska/Lahti
S/H = Segerstam/Helsinki
Individual discussions of the symphonies follow with comments that pertain to the Kamu performances and appropriate comparisons with the sets above. The new set comprises 3 well-filled SACD’s and contain only the seven symphonies.
The opening features a properly plaintive clarinet solo over muted timpani rolls. The timps die away leaving the clarinet alone with its searching melody. The surging high strings break the somber mood and the first theme proper (allegro energico) exerts itself. The recorded sound is close and powerful while Kamu’s conducting is spontaneous and dynamic. It has the character of the sea during a storm, waves swelling and crashing against the shoreline. The andante second movement starts off like chamber music but builds into a powerful climax that quickly leaves the scene. Kamu certainly exploits the drama of the music perhaps at the detriment of a longer view – “episodic” came to mind a few times in the first two movements. This is perhaps as much Sibelius as it is Kamu since prior to composing this 1st symphony Sibelius was engaged in writing orchestral tome poems and programmatic music. The carry-over to his first symphony is evident.
The rowdy scherzo bursts forth with passion, pounding timpani and blaring brass in full throttle. I’ve always felt that there is a Spanish feel to this scherzo and it seems a bit incongruous with what went before. In any case, it’s long been one of my favorite Sibelius movements. Kamu and the orchestra play it with verve. The final movement, with its somber opening, leads to an exhilarating finale reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. As to comparisons, I’ve long had a fondness for Segerstam’s Ondine complete RBCD set with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Kamu matches him strength for strength in this symphony. On the other hand, Vanska (in both his earlier Lahti recording and the recent hi-rez recording) is faster in every movement. I prefer the more measured performances of Kamu and Segerstam though there is no doubt that Vanska/Minnesota can be very exciting at times (and in excellent SACD sound).
The character of Sibelius’s 2nd symphony is quite different than the 1st and is rightfully one of his most beloved compositions. It was this symphony that made a huge impression on me many years ago causing me to explore this composer and although it is no longer my favorite Sibelius symphony (that goes to the 4th) it is still a joy to experience with its grand statements, memorable themes and climactic ending. I really love his use of the lower strings in this symphony and they are captured to perfection in this BIS set. It is here that Sibelius “Scandinavian” character begins to assert itself – with stretches of icy-sounding music interspersed with joyful, ecstatic melodies that soar over a firm foundation. Maestro Kamu does a very fine job judging the character of this music and I cannot find anything to criticize in his performance. Goldilocks would say – “just right”! As to the comparators, Vanska’s Lahti performance is quite similar to Kamu (check out the timings – they are all close). However, Vanska’s remake in Minnesota is less appealing. He pushes and pulls the music around for effect and I think that significantly degrades the performance despite the high quality sonics. Segerstam, too, is a bit willful especially in the first movement which is a whole minute longer than Kamu.
I used to have the Chesky RBCD reissue of Barbirolli and the London Philharmonic in my collection due to its reputation but I always found this performance to be raw and edgy with unlovable sonics (tape hiss bothers me). As a result, I no longer have it. Another performance that I DO still have is the P. Jarvi Telarc SACD which is pedestrian and boring. Of all of the performances I’ve mentioned, Kamu would be my top choice followed closely by Segerstam.
Sibelius chose a three movement form for this symphony. There is no true slow movement here. The first movement kicks off with a sunny, C major theme that soon turns to the minor. The cascades of 16th notes that emerge from the strings after a brief respite (the score is dense with ink for the strings in much of this movement) are extraordinarily precise and superbly musical as executed by the Lahti players. Kamu has total control over the phrase shaping and the brass and wind playing are sonorous. Gorgeous stuff. The music build to a whopping climax with the horns and then turns back to the minor key and more cascading 16th notes. Pizzicato strings serve as a turning point in the movement leading to a noble theme on the horns. A theme near the end of this movement is reminiscent of music from the Lord of the Rings in its grandeur (Howard Shore surely knows his Sibelius!).
A waltz-like theme begins the second movement in a minor key. Variations ensue. The rich sonorities of the Lahti orchestra are resplendent. It took me a while to appreciate this symphony in Sibelius’s canon but hearing this wonderful performance eliminates any doubt that this is a masterpiece. I must remark again on the fullness and detail of the cellos and basses as captured in this recording. Too many modern recordings short change the bottom end but not here and it makes all the difference.
The third movement starts with a playful theme while the music decides – major or minor? The minor mode wins although the sunny major lurks. This is among the great skills of Sibelius who could transition seamlessly from major to minor and back again all the while keeping the listener fully engaged in the musical argument. The music builds to a massive fortissimo on a relentless quarter-note/quarter-note/triplet theme to bring things to a spine-tingling close. We still await Vanska’s take on this symphony with the Minnesotans but when you have a performance as excellent as the Kamu, no need to wait for others. The Vanska/Lahti and Segerstam RBCD performances are both very good but I think Kamu edges them both out and the sound is so much better.
This, my favorite Sibelius symphony, has the best opening measures of any symphony I know – those deep pedal notes by the low strings with the slowly rising melody line always send chills up my spine. Slowly, very slowly, the music gathers momentum. The timpani interject, the French horns declare their presence, the melodic material is fragmented and sparse. Truly glorious stuff! Kamu set just the right tread for this movement (marked molto moderato, quasi adagio). In Vanska’s Minnesota performance, he adopts a slower pace which has a tendency to lose momentum although later in the movement he injects more vigor. Vanska/Lahti is closer to Kamu throughout and thus better overall I think. Segerstam also is also quite close to Kamu in his traversal.
Kamu’s handling of the musical material in the rest of this symphony is sensitive to the score’s demands resulting in an excellent performance which is on par with the excellent performance from Segerstam. I think Vanska’s Minnesota performance is too willful and, despite the great sound, would not recommend it. The older RBCD Vanska is better as a performance but the sound doesn’t approach the excellence of Kamu’s SACD set.
After the 2nd symphony, the 5th is the next most popular of the bunch. It’s easy to see why. By now (1915) the composer had developed his characteristic style. Compared to the austere 4th symphony, this one is brimming with melody and optimism. This symphony underwent several revisions by the composer before it achieved its final form in 1919. It originally began as a four movement work but Sibelius conflated the original first two movements into the first movement we have today resulting in a three movement work. Vanska’s Lahti set included a performance of the original 1915 version but I shall not consider that version here. Suffice to say that it is a quite different symphony in its original guise.
There is a considerable difference between Kamu’s and Vanska’s performances of this work – Vanska is faster in each movement and ends with a total timing that is nearly 4 minutes faster. Both approaches can work. Vanska brings out the energy of the music and Kamu underscores the drama. I do like them both. Again, Segerstam is closer to Kamu than Vanska and I do like his way with this symphony as well. Pick your poison here – all of them have merit.
This symphony lacks some of the profundity his earlier symphonies yet remains so characteristic of this composer. It cannot be by anyone other than Sibelius. This work has more of a chamber feel than the earlier ones and Kamu does a nice job in balancing strings, winds and brass (and the recording lets us hear it in all their tonal glory). The punctuating timpani in the final movement are beautifully rendered in this recording. The final bars are played superbly by the Lahti strings and the symphony dies away into nothingness. I sat in silence taking in the experience that had just unfolded.
Vanska’s early performance is faster in every movement compared to Kamu and he brings a more urgent reading to the score. Segerstam is, yet again, quite close to Kamu – I like them both. We still await Vanska’s latest thoughts on this music with Minnesota.
It has taken me (and many listeners) a long time to warm up to this symphony and it remains my least favorite of the canon. Sibelius himself questioned whether to call this work a symphony. Starting out as a three movement concept which briefly morphed into a four movement plan, the result was a single movement piece with varied themes and motifs. To me, its character is more tone poem than symphony. In any case it is filled with typical Sibelian touches – scampering strings, plaintive wind solos, brief eruptions, sudden climaxes, blazing horns.
Okko Kamu makes fine music out of this concoction. The Lahti players, as they have done throughout this set, perform magnificently. Vanska Lahti performance times out nearly identically and is also fine while Segerstam becomes more urgent and undercuts the others by 90 seconds. The winning factor in all this is the SACD sound for Kamu – you hear every thread, perfectly blended with wide dynamics. Certainly a winning performance of a somewhat unlovable symphony.
Sibelius lived for many years after this symphony yet did not produce another. He is known to have nearly completed an 8th symphony but Sibelius himself was alleged to have burned the score out of dissatisfaction. How sad that is for us!
The Vanska/Lahti RBCD series was recorded in the mid-1990’s at the Church of the Cross in Lahti, a decidedly more resonant acoustic than the Kamu/Lahti SACD set which were in the Sibelius Hall (construction completed in 2000), the home of the Lahti Symphony. The Vanska/Lahti set has very good sonics for RBCD though the orchestra perspective is mid-hall with some hall resonance. The Segerstam RBCD set was recorded in Finlandia Hall, the home of the Helsinki Philharmonic and its sound is slightly more detailed than the Vanska/Lahti set. I prefer it in the RBCD realm. But both of those RBCD sets pale in comparison to the SACD sets – Vanska’s sound in Minnesota is expansive, dynamic and quite detailed without a hint of fatigue with a mid-hall perspective. This new Kamu set is the equal to that but is a bit closer in – perhaps even first row. Everything is so well balanced and I love how the cellos and basses have a distinct presence in the sound where in so many recordings they are indistinct. These are “studio” recordings – no audience present – and thus there are no distracting sounds. Just the glorious sound of this excellent orchestra. Dynamics are wide and timbres are natural. Native pcm resolution is 24 bit/96 kHz. BIS’s recording team have achieved a wonderful result in this set of recordings.
And in conclusion…
This set is a truly fine legacy for Finland’s greatest composer and a proud achievement for Maestro Kamu, the Lahti players and BIS. The three SACD’s come in individual plastic-lined paper sleeves which are housed in a box along with the booklet notes by Andrew Barnett which are thorough and interesting. Each symphony is discussed and placed into the context of Sibelius’s life at the time of composition. Despite the old canard about avoiding complete sets because “no single conductor gets all the symphonies right”, one can safely dismiss that adage and revel in this set from Okko Kamu. It is now my “go to” set for these symphonies where each and every performance is of the highest musical order. Strongly recommended!
Copyright © 2015 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net
Review by John Broggio - December 23, 2015
This a lengthy review so, for a short precis: this is by some distance the most consistent and best recorded cycle of Sibelius to have been issued on hi-res media. Very strongly recommended, enormously thought provoking and tremendously enjoyable music making.
Symphony No. 1
With considerable power, energy and no small amount of careful & musical phrasing, Kamu's account is searing in intensity. Where Kamu scores over Rattle's account is that Kamu manages to take the music at face value and in this score which can easily sound sentimental in the more reflective passages, the directness of his approach pays enormous musical dividends. This is most acutely obvious in the scherzo where, adopting a slightly slower tempo, Kamu achieves a far greater degree of textual clarity and bite to the proceedings, even if it is without the wit that Rattle conveys. The directness again bolsters the finale, portraying the music without embellishment and setting it in a stark context that works consistently well.
Symphony No. 2
Kamu adopts a strikingly similar tempo to Rattle in the first movement and the results are equally winning, if not more so given the lighter timbre afforded to the slightly smaller string section and far more transparent acoustic. Crucially, Kamu gives greater prominence to the woodwind soloists in the development which makes far more sense of the passage-work. The wonderfully wide-ranging dynamics of both the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and the BIS recording hugely enhance the middle movements where Kamu manages the trick of making well rehearsed decisions sound spontaneous and natural.
Much the same pattern occurs throughout the finale of the symphony, yet the relaxed transition into the finale allows for a glowing tone that never veers into grandiose territory. As other symphonies in this cycle show, Kamu and his Lahti Symphony Orchestra consistently refuse to play to the gallery and the way that the finale emerges at a slightly slower pace allows for a very exciting ratcheting up of the tension as the work concludes.
Symphony No. 3
Fine though the performance is that Rattle elicits from his Berliners, Kamu's Lahti Symphony Orchestra is even better. The main differences are in the recorded sound (far clearer & cleaner) and that the orchestra is astonishingly alive to the markings in the score and plays them for all they are worth, more so than the Berliners who have not had the opportunity to “live” this work as much as the Lahti players.
The dynamic contrasts Kamu is able to obtain, thanks to the superb recording & playing, are more extended than either Rattle or Davis can convey and are perhaps most noticeable in the central movement. Even without this extra dimension, Kamu's Lahti players & interpretation are every bit as fresh as Rattle's orchestra; the contrast between muted and un-muted strings at the close could not be greater here and makes for a very satisfying conclusion to the movement. The third movement delivers yet more music to the same standards that preceded and makes for a very satisfying conclusion.
Symphony No. 4
Kamu here is even more relaxed in tempo terms than Rattle but the mood of the performance is anything but; the bleakness of this score is not so much respected as embraced and the first movement is searingly powerful with wonderfully nuanced vibrato in both solo and string sections. The Lahti players manage to play a good deal quieter than their nominally more illustrious colleagues in Berlin and makes us, the listeners, work harder as a result – this is by no means easy listening.
Even in the Scherzo, where some others try to provide relative light relief, Kamu and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra insist on (rightly) accentuating the almost unrelenting disquiet and bleakness. Similar qualities apply to the last two movements where any warmth is like a beam of sunshine through the darkest of storm clouds; the closing chords are suitably sombre and give no grounds for comfort.
It is listening to this symphony, more than the remainder of Kamu's cycle, that illustrates how well each symphony is given its own tonal palette and world but also are convincingly set into Sibelius symphonic journey as a whole.
Symphony No. 5
In the first movement, the work has a wonderful emergence of horns & woodwind, with Kamu setting a very serene & relaxed mood – there is no rush to go anywhere by contrast with Rattle (say). The Lahti strings are lighter and timpani more expressive and incisive than for other accounts. One problem for this slightly smaller body of players is that the brass, trumpets & trombones especially, sometimes stand out rather more than is perhaps ideal for the coherent musical argument but this is nit-picking. The lasting impression is of wonderfully delicate timbres from all concerned (which should not be a surprise!) and this arguably has the most clarity of all versions heard on hi-res media to date. The initial mood is deceptive; Kamu has paced the movement superbly to mimic the great swinging motif in the third movement and this pays huge dividends later in the symphony. The famous transition is very gradual and Kamu lets his orchestra take their time in finding their new trajectory, allowing for many a deft contribution and is wholly organic with few, if any, noticeable “jolts” as we are moved up through the gears.
The playing of the woodwind, at the opening of the second movement, again exudes a unity of approach that has been carefully honed over many years yet still sounds fresh, even on repeated listening. Although noticeably slower than both Rattle & Vänskä, under Kamu's careful attention to detail, the music never flags nor feels as though as it is wallowing in sentimentality, helped enormously by a chaste-sounding woodwind section.
Everything is audible – just! The viola melody is, daringly, hidden at first by Kamu and only gradually emerges into the listeners consciousness. Here, perhaps more than elsewhere, the lack of weight will be felt most keenly by some listeners who may decide the brass are too easily prominent and threaten to destabilise the careful work their colleagues have put in. Even so, such reservations are brushed aside as the performance convincing builds to the concluding chords which convey the shifting, implied suspensions beautifully.
Symphony No. 6
Here, Kamu treads a very satisfying middle-ground between Rattle's somewhat mystical and spacious view of the work and Davis' taut-almost-too-a-fault rendition. Like Rattle, Kamu can rely on not having to work his Lahti players too hard to achieve the musical results he is seeking and their first movements are remarkably alike in broad feeling. Unlike Rattle, he adopts a significantly more relaxed tempo for the second movement, which is then given its own musical space in a way that Rattle seems determined to have avoided. Kamu then gains in a similar way to Davis in the finale (where the time “spent” in the second movement is “saved”) but unlike Davis, Kamu manages to leave the musical uncertainty hanging in mid-air, similar to Rattle's conclusion.
Not for the first time, the sound offered to the Lahti orchestra & Kamu are audibly superior to those afforded by the Philharmonie and are a world apart from those inflicted by the Barbican on the London Symphony Orchestra; the various details of Sibelius' score are far better served here than in the other accounts.
Symphony No. 7
Compared to Rattle, Kamu starts softer but quickly asserts his & the Lahti players grip on this score. The opening string chorales are almost penitentially rendered but this is not (just) reverential playing but a deeply felt and humbly emoted response to this final symphony of Sibelius. As many characterise the best music making traditions, here is a “corporate approach” that is wholly in the service of the composer. Each phrase grows organically and passes between the different sections of the orchestra in a manner that complements and supports both those that come before and afterwards as Kamu guides the listener to the inevitable conclusion that never feels as though it has arrived too early). This approach lets Kamu grant the Lahti players some extra space in the great slow passages without the tension ever sagging unintentionally.
It should come as no surprise that, for this listener, this is the “go to” reference set of Sibelius' symphonies. True, the orchestral sound is not as plush as the Berliners offer Rattle and nor does this come with any video footage attached (which should be viewed if possible). However, as an emotional (dare one say, spiritual) journey for almost every symphony, Kamu plots a more stimulating and satisfying course than Rattle, Davis or Vänskä offer. This set also comes with some of the very best sound that BIS has ever given us for this conductor or orchestra. Add in some first rate notes and there is nothing of substance to quibble about at all.
Copyright © 2015 John Broggio and HRAudio.net