A Master's Sibelius in SACD Sound
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 12/13/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Paavo Berglund has been intimately associated with the orchestral music of Sibelius for decades. He has recorded the complete set of symphonies three times, if I recall, and here we go again with another recording of the Second and the Seventh, this time in dazzling SACD sound. Further, these are live performances and for me that makes a big difference. Live performances seem to catch fire more often than studio efforts and that is the case here. The Second and Seventh were recorded in 2005 and late 2003 respectively and the LPO's engineers do a wonderful job of catching the rich, subtle, exciting sound of the orchestra. One wouldn't know there was an audience present until the burst of applause at the end of each work. But one can hear Berglund's urgent vocal exhortations to his forces about three-fourths of the way through the Seventh.
To be honest, I don't think I've ever heard a bad performance of a Sibelius symphony. Perhaps its my love for the works that makes me ignore any failings, or perhaps it is that orchestras and conductors tend to love these works and give them their all. Certainly in these two performances the latter seems to be the case. Berglund, of course, has been conducting these symphonies since the early 1950s and indeed he even wrote a book about the Seventh Symphony back in the 1960s. To say he knows these works backwards and forwards is an understatement. The architecture of these two works, although with many differences between them, are examples of Sibelius's striving for organic unity in his works. The Seventh is the crowning glory of that search. In one movement, although it has what could be taken as an Andante and a Scherzo, it actually drops in and out of those moods repeatedly so that there is not the usual four-movement sense that other one-movement symphonies tend to have. If ever there was an exemplar of Sibelius's success in finding a way to write an organic symphony, this is it. Berglund understands that; his transitions are seamless, he maintains a steady pulse that underlies the entire symphony, even though the listener is generally not aware of that because of the multitude of changes in the materials being presented. I've listened to this performance five or six times now and I keep coming away with new things to marvel at and a profound sense of satisfaction with the performance.
The Second, which is surely Sibelius's most popular symphony, is, in Berglund's presentation, less strikingly unique among recorded performances but Berglund's and the LPO's traversal brings a wholly justified roar of approval from the audience present in the Royal Festival Hall this past February when the recording was made. I don't know that I've ever heard a more 'triste' rendition of that mournful oboe melody in the trio of the Scherzo, the one that begins with nine repetitions of the initial note. The finale is as exciting as any you're likely to hear, building up to its shattering climax and ending with that radiant D major chord.
The sound on this disc is an example of how superior SACD sound can be. As far as I know this is the first recording of either of these symphonies in that sound format. The plain vanilla stereo, though, is also quite good.
A strong recommendation.