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Sibelius Symphonies 1-7, Finlandia, Karelia Suite / Oramo


Release Date: 04/24/2012 
Label:  Erato   Catalog #: 662795   
Composer:  Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

If you like your Sibelius served ablaze rather than cool then Oramo is certainly the man for you. If Mravinsky is your idol in the Tchaikovsky Fourth, Ormandy in Harris 7, Bernstein in Randall Thompson 2, Gerhardt in Hanson 2, Kondrashin in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Svetlanov in Manfred or Beecham in Sibelius 2 then you are likely to want to add this Erato set to your hall of fame. Magnificent!

Sakari Oramo has been forging a dazzling reputation for himself and for the CBSO since his appointment as Principal Conductor and subsequently Music Director in Birmingham about three years ago. Whoever made the Birmingham choice chose well.

Oramo’s programming and interpretations display an adrenaline factor
Read more sadly absent from the Hallé's current seasons, beginning to leach away from the RLPO, and only sustained with equal panache by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. The London orchestras have shown little of these qualities. We will look back on these days as a golden era comparable with Rozhdestvensky's time with the BBCSO in the early eighties and Järvi's in the late eighties and early nineties with the RSNO. As one example of Oramo’s approach to repertoire, the coming season includes three major works (Mirages, Lyra Celtica, Dynamic Triptych) by John Foulds - surely confirmation of persistent rumours that there will be an Ondine CD of this visionary music. In one of his early seasons he conducted Constant Lambert's large-scale choral/orchestral classic, Summer's Last Will and Testament. This happened at a time when seemingly no-one else had the determination or percipience to tackle the work ... not since isolated performances by Norman del Mar and Vernon Handley during the 1980s.

I digress, as ever. To the task in hand … The world seems to be awash with Sibelius cycles many of which have been reviewed here. Vänskä (Bis), Ashkenazy (Decca), Berglund (Bournemouth, EMI) and Karajan/Kamu (DG Trio), to take four examples, are all recommendable. Many of the others have individual performances that are outstanding but are less successful across the board - Barbirolli (EMI), Maazel/Pittsburgh (Sony), Sakari (Naxos) and Abravanel (Vanguard). I have not heard Ehrling, Berglund (Chamber Orchestra of Europe - better than promising if the extracts on a recent Finlandia compilation are anything to go by), Rattle (CBSO again), Leaper, Saraste, Segerstam, Gibson or Watanabe so I cannot yet give a comprehensive comparative overview.

Oramo's Sixth stands at the extremes of interpretation and will remorselessly hold your attention. For me the Sixth is a work of bleached radiance; the exemplar being the Karajan's version (Trio on DG). The work has also come to be thought of as slowly blooming with Bernstein's CBS/Sony recording being the best illustration of that tendency. Oramo has none of this. The symphony is over for him in just over 27 minutes. His vision is driven, heated, impetuous, passionate, even splenetic in a way I do not recall hearing before. Oramo might almost be another Mravinsky in the belligerent impetus with which he infuses Sibelius's pages. The fourth movement catches the rolling stormy magic of the piece and links to the Seventh Symphony. It works extremely well. Any Sibelian must hear this version.

I mentioned Mravinsky earlier; how tragic that he never recorded any other Sibelius apart from the Seventh and Tuonela. Oramo does not achieve and probably never set out to achieve the brazen indomitable quality of Mravinsky's Seventh (BMG-Melodiya, Moscow, 1965). However he too makes his mark with an interpretation that is intense, laden with sustained valedictory sentiment and epic in reach. It does not for me supplant Ormandy (Sony) or Mravinsky(BMG-Melodiya) but it is a fine reading.

The Seventh has its driven impetuous moments where you are conscious of an urgency to move forward but this is as nothing to Oramo's way with Tapiola. The opening pages are soaked with accelerant and goaded forward in a way you may find startling. You might think such 'impatience' would damage the music. Not at all. This is the equivalent of the 1943 Berlin Furtwängler version of a much earlier Sibelius tone poem, En Saga.

Recording excellence is taken for granted these days but the standards achieved here by the Erato team (Tim Oldham was the producer) are exemplary. The sense of depth and honed refinement is notable in the quietest moments - for example at 3.34 in the second movement of the First Symphony and in the abrasive rasp of the trombones in the finale. The reading of the First is full of imaginative touches without the startling drive we hear in Oramo’s Sixth. This is excellent but not overwhelming; for that you need to track down Barbirolli’s First for the boiling intensity he found for his Hallé recording in the 1960s (the Barbirolli complete set on EMI Classics).

Emulating the famous Okko Kamu coupling (DG) the disc-partner to Oramo’s First is the Third Symphony. Here the rhythmic cells are chiselled, tactile and, in the finale, sturdy and robust. Oramo keeps things taut (5.46 I, tr.5) but slows things drastically for a second movement that is perhaps too still for its own good. Nevertheless this leaves blue sky clear for some of the most enchanting woodwind playing - especially the flute and clarinet. Hot on the heels of the Third comes a fine Finlandia in which the brass and trumpets ring out with burnished conviction (4.33). This may not be as inky-black as Horst Stein’s version with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on Decca but it is excellent.

In the Fifth the visceral accelerating pulse at 7.33 is well done. In fact one of Oramo’s strengths is what I can only call ‘micro’ acceleration and deceleration. The smallest speed re-contourings are lovingly calculated. The grunting attack of the double basses is captured as never before in the finale. Try sampling at 2.30 and listen to that sound: half grunt and half legno rattle. Then move on to 4.12. The magical spatial sense returns again at 5.10 with the spectral ostinato and the clarinet calling over the top. Oramo and the Brummies are to be venerated for the caressing tenderness they achieve in the epic stride of the finale. And, if you are wondering, every one of those offbeat hammer blows at the end has a precise and gripping ‘whump’. This is a version of the Fifth to live with long-term - very satisfying.

After the Fifth come three shorter though not necessarily slighter pieces. The Karelia goes with a hop, a jump and a legato serenading swing. Pohjola’s Daughter is a symphony in microcosm. Its emotive impact and feeling of logical progression has always left me placing it with compact symphonies such as Brian 22, Alwyn 5 and most of all with Rubbra 11. This is of course one of Sibelius’s Kalevala fantasies. Oramo does it wonderfully well with many telling details recreated along the way. These include a squat and soulful cello solo at the start, tightened and tautly-sprung ostinati, boisterously rolled horns and the way he gets the violins to sing out at 2.58. Then there is the strangled brat of a rattle of the horns at 5.09, his tocsin-accented fast-chanting strings at 7.03, the magnificence of the horns (like a certain Holstian Jupiter) at the climax of the piece and an unapologetic nobility (which had me musing on what an Oramo-conducted Elgar 2 would sound like). If the Horst Stein version (Decca Weekend Classics and also in a Decca twofer) remains my preference Oramo is in the very top rank alongside Bernstein (Sony), Sinaisky (Saison Russe) and the tempestuous Boult (Omega).

The drama quotient drops for the minimalist grace of The Bard - effectively a gentle mood piece for harp and orchestra delivered pretty much at p-ppp throughout. It is enigmatic and by no means light or inconsequential music. A pity that we could not also have had Oramo’s Luonnotar.

The disc of the Second and Fourth Symphonies is full. At 7.19 in the first movement the melodic line of the French Horn is not blurred, being heard for the first time. The definition of the instruments is excellent. This seems to be just as much about Oramo’s micro-managed choices as about technical recording judgements. More of this can be sampled at the start of the Vivacissimo (III) where every terraced gesture registers with grace and impact. Much the same can be heard with the little climactic stress at the end of the brass oration at 00.29. That small loudening accentuation makes all the difference. The racing calls at 6.33 I have never heard done in that way before - certainly does it for me! If there are hard-hearted doubters they should be converted by the final few moments which are overwhelming not simply in sheer volume but in the way Oramo carries all before him in a deliberate tidal wave of rollingly magnificent tone. Wow! - An illiterate reaction but I can’t put it more succinctly than that. The Fourth Symphony is good with the recording presenting this most caustic and stark of the symphonies in a highly presentable light and with a dazzling freshness in the finale.

I am assured that the Szell/Cleveland version (live in Tokyo in 1970) is the version of the Second Symphony to have but, of the ones I know, I can recommend strongly this Oramo/Erato as well as Beecham’s rollicking live version at the RFH (1954) with the BBCSO, Ormandy’s version on Sony and of course Barbirolli’s on Chesky.

Over the years some superb recorded performances have come out of Birmingham. I can think of the Hugo Rignold recording of Bliss’s John Blow Meditations (an underestimated masterwork if ever there was one) and Music for Strings both forever doomed to Lyrita vinyldom, Frémaux’s reign including still unmatched voluptuary versions of the Walton Coronation marches, Gloria and Te Deum (EMI Classics) and some superbly-defined Ravel, Addison’s march A Bridge Too Far (conducted by Marcus Dods) and Arnold conducting his own Fifth Symphony. This set surely belongs in that company and I hope that Warner-Erato will not let the Oramo-CBSO connection slip through their fingers.

If you like your Sibelius served ablaze rather than cool then Oramo is certainly the man for you. If Mravinsky is your idol in the Tchaikovsky Fourth, Ormandy in Harris 7, Bernstein in Randall Thompson 2, Gerhardt in Hanson 2, Kondrashin in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Svetlanov in Manfred or Beecham in Sibelius 2 then you are likely to want to add this Erato set to your hall of fame. Magnificent!

- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International

Second opinion:

"...Oramo is fine for a one conductor set of the Sibelius symphonies but there is more to be found. Unfortunately, none of these others have recorded a complete cycle which attains the peaks established by these discs. Also the cost would be much higher forcing you to purchase at least five discs with duplications. In addition, none of the individual recommendations has a recording quality anywhere near that of the Erato release. Indeed it is better than most of the other complete sets. It comes with my highest recommendation for this layout."

- John Phillips, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1.
Symphony no 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1915/1919; Finland 
2.
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1893; Finland 
3.
Pohjola's daughter, Op. 49 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1906; Finland 
4.
The Bard, Op. 64 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1913/1914; Finland 
5.
Symphony no 7 in C major, Op. 105 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1924; Finland 
6.
Symphony no 6 in D minor, Op. 104 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1923; Finland 
7.
Symphony no 4 in A minor, Op. 63 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911; Finland 
8.
Symphony no 3 in C major, Op. 52 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1907; Finland 
9.
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 43 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901-1902; Finland 
10.
Symphony no 1 in E minor, Op. 39 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1899; Finland 
11.
Tapiola, Op. 112 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1926; Finland 
12.
Finlandia, Op. 26 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: Finland 

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