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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 23, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 39
A crowning achievement in recorded Sibelius
Arts & Entertainment
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A crowning achievement in recorded Sibelius

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

JEAN SIBELIUS
SYMPHONIES 1-7
BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
SIR SIMON RATTLE
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS


Whenever I experience a deeply moving performance (not often enough!), sometimes prompting sobs of joy, the primary feeling afterwards is one of almost overwhelming gratitude. Such was certainly the case as I watched Sir Simon Rattle lead the Berlin Philharmonic in all seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius on a fabulous release (2015) of in-house videos from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. The superbly produced package includes 4 CDs of normal audio of these works, a Blu-ray of all seven in 'pure audio 24-bit/96 KHz' sound without video, and a Blu-ray with all seven in HD video with DTS HD surround-sound audio.

As a confessed Sibelius junkie, I have many sets of these symphonies on CD. My favorite conductors for this music have been Paavo Berglund (the Helsinki recordings) and Herbert von Karajan. This release (as viewed in HD video) forces me to choose instead Sir Simon Rattle, who was himself profoundly influenced by Berglund. With no composer does the conductor matter more than with Sibelius, for the nature of his music, especially after the Second Symphony, leaves a huge number of challenges to make his orchestral language speak clearly. Rattle gets it all right, and his balancing of the choirs of the Berlin Philharmonic uncovers many details, which are further illuminated by excellent camerawork.

I recently reviewed a similar set by the same forces of the nine Beethoven symphonies, and I pointed out the advantages of seeing, as well as hearing, the players. The far more complex orchestrations of Sibelius make this visual feature all the more telling and important. It is in fact the camerawork that makes me appreciate the composer's genius more than ever before. Seeing both how Rattle communicates with his players and how they respond to him is a significant part of the message I get from these performances. I used to listen to classical music most often with my eyes closed. But here I'm more engaged with what's going on, and I actually hear things that I would have missed with my eyes shut.

Another illuminating feature of this set is a detailed and revealing, hour-long discussion between Rattle and a Finnish student of Sibelius. They follow the composer's development through each symphony, as well as past conductors' approaches to these works, as revealed through recordings as well as conversations Rattle has had with many of them. Far from dry or academic, these observations achieve at times something approaching revelations. I have never experienced a more rewarding musical discussion.

I dwell so on the visual pluses of this set only because one seldom hears a discussion of this part of the act of listening. If you prefer to listen without the visual, I would still recommend these recordings above all others, both for Rattle's supreme grasp of the mysteries, the spiritualism, and the sonic glories of Sibelius, and for the superb sound throughout. (I just received a complete set of Bruckner's symphonies, which I am not going to review because the sound is so terrible that I cannot listen to them despite, or perhaps because of, my love of Bruckner.) Take, for instance, a comparison with the recordings of Herbert von Karajan, who smoothes over the rhythms of Sibelius, whereas Rattle revels in their fascinating complexities and expressiveness. Watch the incredibly detailed writing for tympani, again highlighted by the camera, which one hardly hears on the von Karajan recordings. Appreciate here the joyous articulation of the exciting rhythms of the first movement of the Third Symphony, which with von Karajan are too relaxed. And Rattle achieves this rhythmic energy without losing any of the overall arch of the music.

I have watched at least once all seven of the symphonies (all on one 297-minute Blu-ray disc in HD video and superb sound), but I have not yet sampled the Blu-ray disc with the 'pure audio 24-bit/96 KHz' sound. Can I bring myself to give up the beautiful visuals to experience the 'pure audio' so proudly presented here? Of course I will, but I will now confess to having fallen in love with some of the personalities of individual players, as revealed in their movements and appearance. In watching them through all nine Beethoven and all seven Sibelius symphonies, one rather gets to know these people a little and to come to value their company. Is this weird? Please try it and let me know what you think.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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