The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 1 & 4 (BIS)

Sibelius demonstrates in the First Symphony a powerful sense of forward momentum. This is demonstrated with relentless energy by the Lahti Symphony (Sinfonia Lahti) in this recording, with razor sharp precision. This style brings out something that seemingly de-Romanticises the work, bringing out something more “modern”. There is a powerful sensation of gusts, of momentum in the reading. Whatever the case, their performance is one of amazing unity – at no point does the energy let up nor the movement falter. Phrasing suffers a bit under this hectic treatment, and listeners familiar with the work may find it doesn’t give the phrases much space for characterisation.

But Osmo Vänskä’s direction of the orchestra is acutely well-timed and executed, dramatic without being overblown. Couple this with the wide dynamic range and sonic sensitivity of the BIS recording, and you get an open arena for pin-point precision music-making. An example of this is the rush of anticipation towards the sudden subito piano at 4’22”. Even as the orchestra drops away, the reverberation it leaves behind creates a tense atmosphere for the four pizzicato chords – pure drama.

At first the speed did disturb me, but after listening through a few times, I found that it is the speed which makes this such a unified, convincing and fresh reading. As far as symphonic unity is concerned, this is one of the best examples of how it can be done differently from more “traditional” interpretations.

The orchestra’s instrumental playing is not only clean but the soundscape astonishingly transparent. The sound reproduction, as usual with the company, is tip-top and adds much to the atmosphere of the music-making. Just listen to the icy silence that surrounds the opening clarinet solo.

What is very satisfying about different performances is that all can take slightly different views of the work and yet each is done with tremendous skill and justification. Vänskä’s performance of the Andante is unified in feeling with the previous movement, making it a natural and inevitable continuation. Again, admittedly it is unusually fast and this time I feel it robs the music of its lyrical beauty, particularly that of the opening string theme. But do catch the episodes of woodwind trills and swirls – are these not the winds whistling over the treetops?

The Scherzo is furious and sharp, and the thunderous timpani simply leaves the listener no quarter. The final moments indeed are mercilessly driven to its conclusion. The finale of the Symphony is perhaps the most “Tchaikovskian”, although as the symphony grew on me over the years, I have found the “Russian” feel receding more and more as the originality of Sibelius surfaces. Either that, or recent performances of the work have played down the former while allowing the Sibelian spirit more space. Certainly that is the case with this performance.

The Lahti Symphony provides the cool, sometimes almost chilly tone distinctive of Scandinavian orchestras – naturally very suited to Sibelius’ music. Their performance of the Finale is thus not warm and heated in the more traditional Romantic sense but rather swift, dynamic, sharply empowered. Windy, buffeting during the furious parts, but also nostalgic, expansive, with an inner warmth in the midst of the cool, snow-white soundscape.

Sir Colin Davis’ 1994 recording on RCA  is more traditional and more leisurely paced than Vänskä’s. It is in the more emotional, passionate passages that the intensity of the London strings come across better than the cooler tones of the Lahti Symphony. Between these two versions, the newcomer would be safer choosing the Davis version – the Vänskä is probably more suited for hardcore collectors who, um, need more than one version. Nevertheless, if you do buy the latter, it is quite an educational experience. BIS offers the benefits of very high quality production, for example in the extensive and detailed notes.

Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony is perhaps the “darkest”, although having said that, I have always felt that even within the darkest Sibelian sound worlds there is always light, be it in momentary flashes through a darkened forest canopy, twinkling starlight in a field of night, a luminiscent mist hanging above a sea of black, or like the aurorae, shifting, pulsing, living light.

The Fourth Symphony is music of great and wondrous mystery, which either casts the listener adrift, lost in a tonal limbo among the stars; or it is utterly spellbinding, like a voyage through space surrounded by wandering planets and ghostly stars.

Under Vänskä, the Lahti Symphony have created a performance of rare eloquence, combining excellence of playing with a deep sense of the music’s many moods. The first movement plumbs depths of immense concentration and is powerfully unified. The second movement, the Allegro molto vivace, swings from moods of playful woodwind to harsh admonitions; to the meditative opening flute mysteries of the third movement, all with great naturalness. I almost didn’t realize that the new movement had begun. This is also performed with conviction, shifting naturally from the slow undulating opening sequence to the passionate (with a short burst of Wagnerian brass) section towards the end. Listen to the utter stillness of the closing pages: truly a performance that knits the eyebrows in awe of stillness. No movement.

In the final movement of the Fourth, the opening is in a cheery, almost carefree manner, complete with glockenspiel parts (Sir Colin uses both the glockenspiel and tubular bells, as a solution to the controversy over the part’s instrumental allocation). In the midst of its development, the music seems to inevitably shift towards darkness, ending in chords of resignation, almost of exhaustion. Sibelius called the Fourth Symphony “a protest against present-day music. It has nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about it.” It is a revolutionary work of the highest intellectual skill fused with a natural kinship with the possibilities of tonality, both in terms of music and of the emotions. Written in the aftermath of a throat operation to remove a tumour, it has been said that in it Sibelius had struggled with the notion of mortality.

The musical material of the symphony is based primarily on the tritone (i.e. a three-tone interval), known in medieval times as “The devil in music.” First heard in the growling, sombre opening motif (C-D-F#-E), it is developed concisely in a symphony of almost unrelenting economy. By this, musicologists mean that the “material” (e.g. a motif) is literally “grown” or argued (as in, one takes a topic and argues about it to convince someone) with precision and without anything unnecessary or extraneous (hence, you do not beat around the bush, or use unnecessary material that does not “fit” into the scheme of things.) In my own words, Sibelius can say more in 20 minutes than most composers in 2 hours.

Although unwelcome for many years, the value of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony is now undisputed. The composer’s son-in-law, Jussi Jalas, aptly proclaimed that:

“For us Finnish musicians, Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony is like the Bible. We approach it with great respect and devotion. In this work Sibelius had seen the unfathomable tragedy of life’s inconsistency, and given it expression boldly, by new means and in a new musical language.”

(From the notes by Andrew Barnett).

True in a sense, and yet, Sibelius lived to the ripe old age of 91.

Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63

Lahti Symphony Orchestra (Sinfonia Lahti) conducted by Osmo Vänskä
Recorded in 1996

BIS Records BIS-CD-861
[75:32] full-price

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

2 thoughts on “The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 1 & 4 (BIS)”

  1. in inkpot#36, page 5,you indicate bis records can be ordered at a good price from MDT Mail Order. Could I have more details? Thank you. I have ALL YOUR REVIEWS ON SIBELIUS-am a S. nut as well. Had a most unusual spiritual experience with the Lahti version of the seventh tonight.

  2. Thanks so much for your kind comments! I am so deeply grateful (and relieved) to know I’m not the only nutcase around! MDT Classics is a UK-based Mail Order service which has a simple and reliable international export service, including on-line ordering services – Customers outside the EU do not need to pay the 17.5% VAT. MDT charges about £9 per BIS disc, and their very reasonable (airmail) postage is £1.50 for the first 2 CDs, and £1 per CD thereafter. This applies to all international orders outside the EU. Singapore readers note however, that in addition to Borders, HMV will be bringing in the full catalogue of BIS soon (or so I was told). Once again, my gratitude for your support.

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