Jean Sibelius – Recommended Recordings

I’ve listened to many recordings of the Fifth Symphony (though

nowhere near the some 100 that are currently available) and attended

a number of live performances. I still hold to the view that the 1961

Bernstein recording is the greatest. (Oddly enough, it is only available

singly with Eugene Ormandy’s Sibelius First Symphony on Sony or,

alternatively, in one of two Sony boxes—one with 60 CDs; the other

with 10—of Bernstein’s performances with the New York Philhar-
monic. Both boxes are huge bargains.) Bernstein never did anything

finer than this. He really did not have to, but he tried—in a remake of

the Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1987, which is also not to

be missed. This is a slower interpretation, but one that never loses in-
ner tension and that delivers the climaxes gloriously. There is only the

slightest hint of the self-indulgence that was to mar Bernstein’s work in

his sunset years when he became too emotionally self-indulgent. The

Vienna Philharmonic gives its all, and the recorded sound is amazingly

1615 alive.

From PentaTone Classics, there is a superb reissue of Colin Davis’

great performance of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, with the Boston

Symphony Orchestra. This has been near the top of the list of finest

Fifths since it was recorded in 1975, and it still belongs there—right

next to Bernstein’s Fifth. This Super Audio CD reveals the original

four-channel sound in which the symphony was recorded by Philips. It

comes with a very fine Seventh Symphony and the symphonic poem,

1616 En Saga.

Now there is another competitor. Paavo Berglund, who died in 2012,

knew Sibelius personally, and conducted cycles of his symphonies sev-
eral times. They were respectable efforts, but the ones I heard did not

rise to the top. However, Berglund had a reputation as a better con-
ductor in live concerts than he was in the recording studio. A release

from the London Philharmonic Orchestra label confirms this reputa-
tion in the recordings of live performances of the Sibelius Fifth and

Sixth symphonies from 2003 and 2006 respectively. Berglund captures

Jean Sibelius: Finnish Majesty 369

the excitement and majesty of the Fifth with tempi that are similar to

Bernstein’s, even a mite tighter. Nothing sounds rushed, however; it

is a magnificent unfolding. By all means, get the Bernstein, but this is

1617 a worthy successor.

Sibelius: Symphonies nos. 1 & 5 / Romance for Strings (Ormandy and

1618 Bernstein), Sony Essential Classics (available from Arkiv.com)

Symphonies nos. 5 & 7 (Bernstein), Deutsche Gramophone (oop, avail-

1619 able on DG 477 9785 and 474 9362)

1620 Symphonies nos. 5 & 7; En Saga (Davis), PentaTone 5186 177

1621 Symphonies nos. 5 & 6; The Swan of Tuonela (Berglund), LPO 0065

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