November 25, 2020


Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Kullervo. Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano; Tommi Hakala, baritone; YL Male Voice Choir; Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $59.99 (4 SACDs).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7, arranged by Erwin Stein, Hanns Eisler and Karl Rankl; Mahler: Symphony No. 4, arranged by Erwin Stein. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Thomas Christian Ensemble. MDG Scene. $18.99 (2 CDs).

     Strictly speaking, it is not true that Sibelius’ symphonies move over time from the richness of Late Romantic orchestration to the spare nature of much 20th-century music. Certainly Nos. 1 and 2 have an opulence about them that is largely absent from No. 3 and, in particular, No. 4 – but No. 5 reclaims some of the warmth of the earlier works, although it uses the orchestra very differently, and Nos. 6 and 7 then employ a large orchestra in post-Romantic ways that are nevertheless recognizably connected to the style of the late 19th century. The best Sibelius conductors – and Osmo Vänskä is one of them – pay close attention to the ways in which Sibelius modified his use of the orchestra through the symphonies, but do not feel they have to make the later ones somehow more attenuated and thin than the earlier ones in order to show how the composer’s style and thinking changed from the 1890s to the 1920s. Vänskä himself has progressed in his thinking about these symphonies since his cycle with the Lahti Symphony appeared in 2001: his new sequence with the Minnesota Orchestra is on the one hand tauter and on the other more expansive than the earlier one, as if Vänskä spent considerable time thinking about the elements that make each of these symphonies distinctive and finding ways to bring those portions to the fore without in any way compromising the overall flow or structure of the works. Furthermore, although the Lahti musicians might be expected to come more naturally to a kind of Nordic sound than those from the Minnesota Orchestra, Vänskä has obviously worked with the Minnesotans with considerable care to help them evoke the elements of orchestral sonority, blending and contrast that, combined, characterize Sibelius’ tonal language.

     It all started with Kullervo, with which Sibelius in 1892 firmly established his symphonic bona fides and his ability to handle a large orchestra plus, in two of the five sections, a male chorus. Interestingly, the Vänskä Kullervo offered in the new BIS Sibelius set is the most recently recorded work, dating to 2016. The symphonies themselves were recorded between 2011 and 2015. Kullervo is certainly not a symphony, but neither is it exactly a cantata or “exactly” anything specific: it is an exploration, Sibelius’ first, of the elements of the Kalevala that would pervade his music for three decades. Vänskä gives the work a very broad, expansive performance – it lasts just under 80 minutes – and thoroughly explores the coloristic elements in which Sibelius showed his ability to manage a large-scale composition while also paying close attention to details of orchestration. Kullervo does tend to sprawl, and nothing Vänskä does can entirely prevent that; but as a whole, this cohesively conceived and very well-played performance clearly shows why the work is a kind of foundation stone for the cycle of symphonies.

     The symphonies themselves appear on disc in this set just as they did when originally released as single recordings: Nos. 1 and 4 are together, as are Nos. 2 and 5, then Nos. 3, 6 and 7. This makes a chronological aural approach to the material a bit of a chore – and it is odd that the set includes four separate booklets, one from each of the individual SACDs, several of them covering similar material repetitiously. Since this is a full-priced set and scarcely inexpensive, more attention might have been given to a better, more elegant and more integrated presentation. The true elegance, however, lies in Vänskä’s handling of the music rather than in the way the discs are packaged. Vänskä emphasizes the similarities as well as the differences between the first two symphonies, handling both with taut intensity that prevents No. 1 from seeming thoroughly Germanic in heritage while not allowing No. 2 to appear to be a great leap forward – here it is a natural, albeit significant, progression in the handling of the orchestra and the thematic material. The more-modest scale of No. 3 comes through effectively here, showing a symphony that is more compressed than the first two but scarcely “smaller” in concept or communication. And No. 4, the thorniest of the seven, emerges under Vänskä with a stark definitiveness lying somewhere on the border between fortitude and despair – all the way through to its strange mezzoforte conclusion. No. 5 has elegance, warmth, sonic clarity, and a particularly strong feeling of emergence from the natural world. No. 6 has a unique sound in the cycle, lacking both the broad scope of No. 5 and the majesty of No. 7 – and Vänskä uses this to the work’s advantage, emphasizing its smooth flow and refinement, its absence of major climaxes pointing to a kind of slow-moving iciness that becomes bracing and refreshing. And No. 7, which Sibelius originally labeled a fantasia, sounds like one here, its single movement scaling heights and exploring depths through a series of contrasts that collectively produce a large-scale sonic metamorphosis that is both intense and subtle. Vänskä thoroughly explores the internal architecture of each symphony while remaining aware of the place of each one chronologically: everything has the recognizable Sibelius style, but what Vänskä does so well is to show the subtleties as well as the broader ways in which that style evolved from the time of Kullervo to that of Symphony No. 7. With excellent sound and first-rate, very idiomatic playing throughout, this is a Sibelius cycle to cherish and to listen to repeatedly with the expectation (which turns out to be justified) of discovering new things in each successive hearing.

     Although Sibelius used a large orchestra to produce some symphonies with a spare sound, there was never anything sparse about his musical notions. The same was certainly true, to perhaps an even greater degree, in the works of Bruckner and Mahler – with the latter of whom Sibelius had his famous argument about how all-encompassing a symphony should be (with Mahler saying it should contain the whole world and Sibelius strongly disagreeing). It is particularly interesting to contrast the finely honed Vänskä performances of the less-opulent-sounding Sibelius scores with the exceptionally small-scale, much-reduced and yet impressively communicative versions of Bruckner’s Seventh and Mahler’s Fourth that were created for Arnold Schoenberg’s society for propagating then-new music by using the extremely limited resources available at the time. Founded in 1918 and offering performances from 1919 until its dissolution because of hyperinflation in 1921, the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen gave select audiences the chance to hear recently composed music in highly intelligent, carefully crafted arrangements requiring only a chamber-sized ensemble. Even today, these arrangements are more than curiosities: they are examples of skilled musicians getting to the heart of massive works whose orchestral requirements provide tremendous color to performances but whose inner skeletons, so to speak, can be foundationally rearranged to fit a small group of players effectively. Indeed, it is remarkable just how effective these small-group performances of large-scale works can be, as is especially evident on a new two-CD release from MDG Scene featuring the Thomas Christian Ensemble. Imagine Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 performed by clarinet, horn, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano four hands and harmonium; imagine Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 played by flute, oboe, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, harmonium and percussion, and, of course, soprano. Or, much better than imagining the well-nigh unimaginable, listen to how these pieces actually sound in these excellent arrangements, and the underlying chamber-music scaffolding on which both composers erected their grand symphonic structures become clear, charming and highly convincing from a musical standpoint. This is less of a surprise where Mahler’s Fourth is concerned: his most placid symphony, it is the one in which the chamber-like elements – always present in his symphonic works – come to the fore, as he uses orchestral sections and individual instruments in finely honed style to highlight specific rhythms, harmonies and sound colors. Erwin Stein’s arrangement deserves to be called masterful: it not only tracks the symphony’s basic progress but also brings considerable clarity to the emotional points that Mahler makes in this exploration of Heaven and its surroundings. Of course this instrumental scale is not what Mahler intended: for instance, the final soprano song, no matter how well Christiane Oelze handles it, is supposed to have the voice playing out against orchestral material, not assuming the lead role in a chamber-music piece. But even in the grander portions of the symphony, such as the climax of the third movement – in which the gates of Heaven seem to open – Stein’s skilled arrangement conveys the intensity and meaningfulness of the scenes that Mahler paints.

     The success of the chamber arrangement of Bruckner’s Seventh – done by Stein with the assistance of Hanns Eisler and Karl Rankl – is more unexpected. The sheer size of the sound of Bruckner’s later symphonies, their oft-remarked resemblance to music as if played by a gigantic organ, adapts less readily to the chamber-music milieu of Schoenberg’s society. Here, listeners familiar with the symphony will certainly find a good deal lacking in warmth, sonorousness and grandeur – but the whole point of this arrangement was to make the music accessible to people who were not familiar with it: familiarity with Bruckner was scarcely a given in 1921. Today’s listeners need to set aside their preconceptions of the “Bruckner sound” in order to appreciate fully just how effective this arrangement is and how well it uses the small instrumental complement (the four-hand piano is an especially neat touch). In truth, it can sometimes be difficult to hear the structural underpinnings of Bruckner’s carefully crafted symphonies, simply because it is so easy to be swept into the beauty of their sound world. Stein, Eisler and Rankl make no attempt to “downscale” the warmth and grandiosity of Bruckner’s Seventh, instead making sure that its underlying elements, such as the composer’s fondness for three-against-two rhythms, are uncovered and presented clearly and forthrightly. The result is a “chamber symphony” that is recognizably Brucknerian even though it is quite obviously nothing that Bruckner himself would have written. The ensemble members heard on this release are all first-class musicians, all sounding strongly committed to the project (as, indeed, were the players of Schoenberg’s time), and all handling the crucial balance among their instruments with finesse and great skill. The stripped-down Bruckner Seventh and Mahler Fourth showcase both the composers’ skill with building blocks of sound and the arrangers’ skill at selecting which of those blocks are most needed to show the works’ underlying structures and to convey their basic, if scarcely complete, emotional messages.

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