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Dip Your Ears, No. 57 (Ashkenazy's Sibelius)

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Symphonies, Tone Poems, Violin Concerto
V.Ashkenazy, LPO, B.Belkin,

There is no dearth of great Sibelius cycles - many are very good and all are less controversially regarded as good than most cycles of other symphonists. Small countries have gone to war over which Mahler cycle is the best, families have separated over Bruckner questions along Wand vs. Celibidache vs. Jochum lines... and small arms fire must on occasion decide which LvB cycle receives the imprimatur.

No such emotions when it comes to the cool Sibelius symphonies. Wouldn't be prudent. Too much good stuff is out there... and even if it were not the necessary top choice, few lovers of Sibelius would claim not to be able to live with any of the three Colin Davis cycles (Ia, Ib, II, IIIa, IIIb) or Osmo Vänskä's on BIS or the almost-complete Karajan cycle on DG or Berglund's EMI traversal. Some English people might even accept the Rattle cycle as sufficient - and only a few people would sneer at the Barbirolli set of Sibelius's 7... although that's already one-and-a-half steps out of the mainstream.

I personally hold Vänskä in the highest regard - but Vladimir Ashkenazy makes a good point in his recordings for those who claim he's a better conductor than a pianist. Indeed, if price is an issue, too, I'd place his cycle at the very top of my list. He's improved as a conductor over the years, but in this one he was already ahead of himself. It is solidly played throughout all the symphonies and then some. Not as 'safe' as Järvi in either of his two (somewhat disappointing) cycles, not quite as all-out as Vänskä. Cool but with northern fire. A true rival to the Boston Colin Davis set. Excellent attacks and a lyrical side. In the reissue Decca threw in the tone poems and the violin concerto - all at a great price. (Incidentally, Boris Belkin's account of the violin concerto is probably underrated; recent revisiting was a far more impressive affair than I had remembered, despite - or even in part because? - of some technical struggles. The Two Serenades are a superb bonus.) These performances might be supplemented in individual symphonies according to one's own taste and preference (Barbirolli 2nd, Celibidache, or Bernstein 5th, for example) - but they leave little to desire and I can only wish that I would have had them as my first and basic Sibelius set instead of Maazel. (No offense, Lorin!) (Ed. 2017: I can't let that last dig stand; Lorin Maazel's Sibelius is some of the best work Maazel has done on disc; it's amazing how well the Vienna Philharmonic, which must have been utterly unfamiliar with the composer at the time and possibly even dismissive, plays for him. It isn't a bad set at all; in fact, it is one of the half dozen I would most easily recommend. Along with Ashkenazy's.)

Very much recommended.

See also: A Survey of Sibelius Symphony Cycles


Anonymous said...

Very interesting...your warm vs. cool dichotomy used to be a hot point of critical contention in Sibelius. I prefer 'wet' (romantic, Tchaikovskian) vs. 'dry' (leaner, more structural) and strongly lean towards the latter. You lean to the former it seems and indeed I take Maazel over Ashkenazy esp. in 1, 4, 3 & 6. I suspect based on last Nov NSO concert Ashkenazy would be more 'dry' if re-recording this rep today.

Barbirolli should be 'wet' but strikes me as right in the middle and top choice IF only the playing were more reliable. Still at the price a no-brainer supplement. No gripes with Vanska or Davis (Philips, not RCA) but neither is 'best'for each work. Thus: don't rely only on a box set, choose individual discs to taste. Just one example: for a unique, quasi-Brucknerian approach to No. 5, Karajan's c. 1960 EMI disc (reissued several least one is current).

Thanks for launching this -- any other strong opinions out there?

jfl said...

Hmmm... agree RCA set Davis; perhaps singularly most overrated Sibelius set out there. (Strength of the English Press.) Never thought of Barbirolli as 'middle' of the road set; for me it's Sibelius, re-imagined as red-meat. Possibly too harsh on the Maazel set. Currently enjoying the new Jansons Sibelius 2nd (my fav. Sibelius symphony, if, admittedly, not his most beloved or even best) on the RCO live label.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Sir Alexander Gibson, whose reputation seems to be in elcipse. He was an eminent Sibelian, and also recorded one of the best -- I would say second best next to Martinon -- Nielsen 4ths. I heard him in concert and also thought well of his Chandos set with the Scottish National Ochestra.

jfl said...

Certainly Gibson is very fine, as I've found out since.

In fact... there are so many good cycles out there. Here's a list:

Sibelius Cycles