Sibelius: 7 Symphonies - Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR 150071 (2 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Sibelius: Complete Symphonies
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
For Simon Rattle, Jean Sibelius is “one of the most staggeringly original composers that there is”. And indeed, this music has a unique musical language whose many beauties are particularly succinctly conveyed in Sibelius’s seven symphonies. There is sonorous warmth as much as there is austere Nordic folklore. Moreover, there is a conceptual boldness that takes the listener on exciting musical journeys of discovery. In 2015, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth, Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker presented the cycle live, which was met with unanimous delight by audiences and critics alike. “The Philharmoniker show that with them and Simon Rattle, Sibelius is in excellent hands,” wrote the Berliner Zeitung, “because the orchestra has that astringency and sheer power which is so important for this kind of music.”
Simon Rattle was familiar with the music of Jean Sibelius from childhood. When, as a ten-year-old, he heard the Fifth Symphony live for the first time, it struck him – to use his own words – “like a thunderbolt”. The Berliner Philharmoniker can also look back on a long Sibelius tradition and the orchestra was conducted by the composer himself in 1902. However, the first complete performance of the seven symphonies was not realised until 2010 under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, with the Third Symphony being performed by the Philharmoniker for the first time. For many music lovers in Berlin, this new encounter with Sibelius was an exhilarating experience, and so it was only natural to repeat the performance of the cycle in Sibelius’s anniversary year.
The complete recording of the symphonies is now being released in an exclusive edition. The edition presents the symphonies not only on 4 CDs, but also on two Blu-ray discs as HD video, in uncompressed audio resolution and DTS surround sound. The extensive product features include a comprehensive booklet and an hour-long video interview in which Sir Simon Rattle talks about his views on Sibelius and introduces the seven symphonies.
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Recorded from 28 January to 6 February 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 1-4); 18-20 December 2014 (Symphony No. 5) and 7-9 February 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 5-7) at the Philharmonie Berlin, 24/192
Recording producer: Christopher Franke
Sound engineer: René Möller
Executive producer: Olaf Maninger, Robert Zimmermann
Project manager: Felix Faustel
Product manager: Sarah Kopitzki
Art direction: Studio Marek Polewski
Editorial: Gerhard Forck, Phyllis Anderson, Stephan Kock, Philip Lawton, Anita Lingott, Charlotte Sinn
- 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 John Broggio - December 23, 2015
A lot of material, so for the TLDR fans: good but not exceptional outside of the fifth symphony. Buy it for the videos or if an avid fan of conductor and/or orchestra.
Symphony No. 1
This is a very large scale reading but far from the Romanticised vision that Karajan viewed this piece as possessing; instead Rattle unleashes enormous energy from the Berliners that is a world away from the deceptively sinuous clarinet opening of the first movement. Every section is given its due by Rattle and the engineers; the relative prominence of the woodwind and brass (but never to the point of obscuring other sections) help reinforce that this is not “Tchaikovsky's 8th” (counting the Manfred) symphony. For all the energy, the pace is never rushed and, where appropriate, the music is given time to sing. The second movement is, again, a refreshing take on the music with careful balancing of the woodwind and string solos where the harp is allowed to complement proceedings without dominating proceedings. As the momentum is moved on slightly in the central section it picks up great power, evoking the storms that Tapiola even more vividly presents.
The scherzo is presented with great power and a fair amount of wit; here, more than elsewhere, Rattle & the Berliners make it more “cohesive” music and with less angularity than others have found; some may enjoy this, others may be a bit more cool in their reaction. The playing is otherwise faultless, nowhere more so than in the delightful Trio. The level of excitement in the coda is at a higher level than elsewhere and the shift doesn't completely convince, no matter how well played and in part this may be a reflection of the Philharmonie's comparatively opaque acoustic. The temperature of the music making immediately cools at the opening of the finale where the solos explore meaning without obvious narrative direction until the the strings wrest control for the main Allegro. From thereon in, the reading maintains momentum right to the thrilling diminuendo on the timpani.
Symphony No. 2
The tempo choice for the first movement seems to come straight out of Goldilocks' musical dreams; enough forward impetus to sustain the arguments but with enough space granted by Rattle's ample yet sensitive rubato. Once more, the strings are happy to give centre stage to their colleagues slightly further back on the platform. As in the opening movement of the first symphony, there is a great deal of energy invested by the Berliners and Rattle harnesses this magnificently.
The wide-ranging dynamics are fully realised in the recording of the second movement, where the pizzicato passages give way to the full-throated roar of the bassoons and, in time, the brass. Very well terraced dynamics by conductor and orchestra alike, this is very satisfying indeed and the tension ahead of the “chaste” section is palpable.
The scherzo is torn into with almost unrefined ferocity and is given as a (musical) tour de force and they gloriously relax into the central section. The return of the scherzo is appropriately brusque and the flow into the finale is seamless. The tuba and basses revel in giving the off-beat change in harmony (unlike the toned down response for other conductors) and it is a measure of how much things have changed that the responses to the scalic passages are constantly shifting in nature. This is enormously satisfying over the longer-term as they wend their way to the summit of the works conclusion.
Symphony No. 3
This is only the second time in their collective history that the Berliners have performed the third symphony, and the first time that they have set it down in the recording studio; it is also the single most “alive” and energising performance of this cycle. Everyone seems on their toes (musically speaking) and the same sense of musical exploration that Abbado evoked in Mahler returns. Here, for the first time in the cycle, Rattle is able to catch the musicians without them looking over the shoulder at their past achievements which, every so often, one felt was the case in the first two symphonies. Tempo choices are just “right”, allowing the ebb & flow of the musical tension to be relayed without histrionics but with dramatic flair.
For all the more conspicuous virtuosity of the outer movements (and the finale doesn't, contrary to some of the discussion included on the Blu-ray taken from the Digital Concert Hall, feel as though it is suddenly ending), it is the natural musical eloquence exhibited throughout the orchestra, from the woodwind to the solo strings, that is sheer joy to the ears and to the soul in equal measure. This performance truly captures the Berliners and Rattle “on the wing” and the results are magical, albeit throwing some of their other efforts into sightly less flattering relief.
Symphony No. 4
After a hugely imposing and appropriately foreboding opening, Rattle & his orchestra pare down the textures in a way that is quite inconceivable under Karajan's baton, powerfully intoxicating though that account is. Rattle chooses to adopt a daringly expansive tempo that clearly plays to the strengths of his orchestra, for the Berliners ability to sustain a fermata is still second-to-none. The ability to play far more rhythmically distinctly and incisively than Karajan desired does wonders for the listeners understanding and feeling for the structure of the music in the first movement.
The second movement also gains from the lighter tone that the Berliners bring to the score for the woodwind players no longer have to pour every last gasp into being heard above the strings (beautiful though they are!) In one of the common ironies of Sibelius interpretation, the more logical it sounds, the more likely that the angularity of the scores are being swept under the carpet: the revealing playing here strongly suggests that Rattle has managed to hide Karajan's broom! The chorale in the brass though is given a wonderful burnish from this superb orchestra and the pauses between each phrase are full of meaning in the third movement, where the tone colour is also enormously varied between and within sections; compared to other accounts recorded in Berlin, Rattle has convinced the orchestra to completely rethink its approach.
The dynamic range of the fourth movement feels incredible for once (rather just inferred from the timbre changing), adding to the unsettling atmosphere by removing the “safety net” that some others allow. At the end, Rattle makes the ending far more definite, almost brusque, by not letting the pulse yield at all which denies the overtly emotional response that some seek to give this music.
Symphony No. 5
Rattle takes, crucially, a little more space than some so that the music never feels rushed or hurried. Here one senses a far bigger body of musical intent, from conductor and orchestra alike, which is often thrilling in its intensity. Although far removed from the plush upholstered patina that Karajan famously bought to the work (a fascinating part of the interview with Rattle relates how he had to show the orchestra the score to prove they had being playing parts of this symphony incorrectly for decades), there are details where the sheer richness of tone masks some details that are heard under Kamu's baton. Fortunately, the combined desire to make the intellectual argument, allows for a cogent picture to emerge but the flip side is that some “odd” moments are rather downplayed as if those rendering them feel rather self-conscious but never so much that they are inaudible. The transition to the “scherzo” is sounds completely organic and, thrillingly, the tempo is ever-so-subtly ratcheted up throughout to the coda – devastatingly effective and one really _knows_ that the climax has arrived.
One can hear the accompanying musicians lead the musical argument from one phrase to the next, as the tunes play out all around them – this is a special moment of this performance. The occasional (part-)phrase might sound a little too polite for some but those more charitable would perhaps suggest this is a more symphonic way of playing this music. One thing is for sure: there is no way this can be dismissed as episodic playing or phrasing. Another characteristic trait of Rattle conducting is that the accompanying strings frequently drop to the threshold of audibility; this holds true here and allows for easy eloquence from the woodwinds – a joy to the ear.
Although not much slower than some of the faster interpreters on disc, Rattle's pacing is ideal: although the recording is not as clear as for Kamu, the maximum amount of detail expected from such large forces is attained and is allied to far more heft than for Kamu – the “swinging” motif really tells. As with Kamu & Vänskä, the subito sotto voce is quite magical, perhaps more so given the scale of forces that are employed in Berlin. Rattle perhaps manages to maintain the sense of momentum better than the others which makes for a thrilling coda, where the brass are ideally in proportion with the rest of the orchestra. The sheer weight of the final chords is compelling in the hands of the Berliners and rounds off a very satisfying performance.
Symphony No. 6
Starting tentatively, Rattle projects an image of uncertainty in the phrasing; he actually programmed this to “finish” with the seventh symphony as the “finale”, without a pause. It is not possible to determine if this approach was used in these studio performances. In the first movement, the introduction is incredibly wistful in Rattle's hands before a more “definite” structure is given by Sibelius in the main body of the Allegro molto moderato. Somewhat surprisingly, the textures evoked are similar to those in the first symphony (albeit the sonic brush is now a bit more watercolour inflected than oils) and not just because a harp is employed. Just as Rattle wishes to blur the sonic boundaries between the final two symphonies, he seeks to do so between the first two movements of this symphony, very successfully. The final pages fade into bleak silence wonderfully.
Symphony No. 7
With a reasonably distinct “jolt” from the timpani, arguably the most difficult of Sibelius' symphonies to interpret starts with an expansive tone. Here, more than elsewhere, Rattle is content to let the Berliners show off the lustre that they can bring to music but he is still ensuring that the carpet of string tone is not so deep that crucial woodwind accompaniments get lost in the textures. One ceaselessly marvels at the double basses who underpin this symphony with complete assuredness and mark the passing of the subtle shifts in tonality with unerring certainty to a very moving coda (whether or not you listen to this in isolation or as the “end” to the sixth symphony).
As a whole, this set has some excellent performances (the fifth symphony in particular) but when listened to in concentrated fashion against Kamu & his Lahti Symphony Orchestra (Sibelius: 7 Symphonies - Kamu), especially if sound quality is a concern, the set on BIS is more stimulating and rewarding. I would not wish to be without this set for the alternative views put forward and, most especially, the ability to see this great orchestra responding to this great music on film (fairly self-effacing camerawork that is the standard for the Digital Concert Hall). It must equally be noted that the sound is not a patch on that accorded to Kamu; some of this is down to the Philharmonie acoustic itself but it is equally true that PentaTone have managed far better results in their series of recordings with Berlin's “other” concert orchestra in similarly large-scale music. Nor, if this is a critical factor, are the notes as fulsome as offered from BIS.
Copyright © 2015 John Broggio and HRAudio.net