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Sibelius, Jean - Symphonien Nr. 1, 2, 5 & 7
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Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in four separate performances of Sibelius's Symphonies 1, 2, 5 and 7, recorded live at the Wiener Musikvereinssaal between 1986-1990.
- Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
- Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
- Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82
- Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
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PS: The relatively slow tempos work better visually, BTW.
The 5th also rated 5 stars, although a little more grudgingly. Bernstein had discovered another fetish to irritate the viewer: a pair of spectacles ( I have never seen him with them previously) that he took on and off, passed from hand to hand, and even used them in lieu of his baton to bring in the solo instruments. To compensate for this visual irritation, Burton provides us in the slow movement with some of the most detailed and technically exciting close-ups of members of the string section and their instruments. Regrettably, this work is saddled with the ugliest ending in the entire symphonic repertoire with which Bernstein does no worse a job than anyone else. 4.5 stars for the entire collection, but there is still room for an improved version.
First: the competition:
I have never understood the detractors of Karajan vis a vis Sibelius. His monolithic performances seem to summon up the very atmosphere of the north. Vanska's more intimate approach conjures its own poetry and seems equally appropriate. Davis offers something in between. Ashkenazy, on the other hand, lights the ice on fire. For a newcomer to Sibelius, I'd start with his Decca set.
Now to Bernstein:
Symphony Number One is quite simply superb. This is an uncontroversial interpretation which finds Bernstein at his most concentrated. I'm tempted to say this is the finest thing I've ever seen him do. The entire work seems to give birth to itself before our eyes and ears in the most ideal manner imaginable. There is nothing exaggerated, even at the height of intensities that are encountered here. Bernstein was many things at many times, but never before have I been compelled to describe what is in evidence here by one word: noble. But nobility there is here in spades.
Symphony Number two, too, exudes nobility. But here there is also something else: eccentricity.
What Bernstein does in this fascinating performances is break the music down into studied, yet emotionally charged atoms. I suppose it could be argued that he is fighting against Sibelius' own instincts towards greater and greater unity. I've never heard so much silence offered between these phrases. And frankly, there are moments when the connections almost are lost. But, for every near miss, there is an even larger hit-- for Bernstein's vision is never hard to perceive. This is paradoxical Sibelius: big band, but stripped down. One is tempted to say de-constructed, but it is never cold, calculated, or ironic. Bernstein seems to be courting the ghosts of Furtwangler or Klemperer-- without ever losing track of his own musical soul.
Fascinating, yes, not always enrapturing, but finally, most compelling stuff.
Oh, what's with the Vienna crowd-- so many of them walking out during the ovation? Were they sticking their noses up? Or-- like L.A. folks-- did they want to be the first out of the parking garage? Makes one remember that Vienna was the city that snubbed Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. So much for Austria as the land of universal musical enlightenment!
(They stay in their seats after Number One, though, which was recorded later. Maybe by then they were learning to appreciate the gift of Bernstein-- which was about to leave the Grosser Musikvereinsalle of the World, forever...ewig...ewig....)
Finally: Symphony #5. This interpretation is closer to that of #2 than #1. Bernstein sets a slow but inexorable pace and reveals all the subtleties that the Vienna players can bring out. All the interplay between woodwinds and bass fiddles stands out in brilliant relief. Of course this symphony calls for brass and here we get astonishing transitions as these rays of sunlight break through the shifting weather of the middle sections.
Does the finale work? Up to a point. The sense of holding back achieved by Bernstein's hypnotic pacing builds a remarkable aura that feels as much human invention as primal creation (the music has never sounded as "composed"). Those ultimate "exposed" blasts are here reduced to "bursts," eruptions in the longest rings of silence I've heard attempted with this, one of the most audacious of all endings. For my taste, I want the primordial eruption here-- and Bernstein doesn't give it to you. There's a touch too much of virtuosity in his conception. But what virtuosity!