Recording of the Week, Osmo Vänskä completes his cycle of Sibelius symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra
Every now and again a CD comes along that, if you’ll forgive the cliché, manages to breathe new life into familiar pieces. Osmo Vänskä’s latest recording of three Sibelius symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra is one such disc. This is actually the conclusion to his cycle of all seven symphonies, although there has been quite a gap since the last one (the previous two discs were released in 2012 and 2013!) To say that it has been worth the wait is something of an understatement: from the moment that Symphony No. 3 started, I was grabbed by the string articulation and phrasing, with highly characterised semiquavers from the cellos and basses. They really bring out all of the accents too, with a pleasingly exaggerated thwack on every single one that makes for a fantastic opening, full of a rustic, infectiously joyous swagger.
This attention to detail is present throughout the symphony, not least some particularly well-done dovetailing between extremely quiet violins and flute in the first movement. Compared to some other Sibelius symphonies, the brass are given relatively little to do, but when they do contribute they certainly make their mark: a satisfying bite to the horns, and a warmth to the trumpets and trombones. The final chords of the first movement are played with elegant simplicity, and yet are ideally voiced and balanced.
Speaking of simplicity, Vänskä knows when not to interfere: in the second movement he lets the searching lines for flutes and clarinets unfold fairly straightforwardly, but that’s all you need when they’re performed as magically as they are here. The brief passage for cellos divided into three parts is exquisite, and made me wish that it went on for longer!
If I appear to have been somewhat over-effusive when it comes to the Third Symphony, it's certainly not meant to be at the expense of the other two symphonies, which receive equally fine performances. The Seventh is always a tricky one for a conductor to pace, consisting as it does of a single, 23-minute movement with several interlocking sections that require seamless transitions. One of the moments of arrival is the trombone solo about five and a half minutes into the piece, and the way Vänskä prepares the ground for this moment is quite extraordinary: he seems to treat the first five minutes as a steady build-up to this moment, gradually and cumulatively growing in intensity, so that when we do finally reach the solo, it becomes a moment of cathartic release that few other performances can match. The solo itself is not necessarily as loud or as blazingly triumphant as I have heard it elsewhere, played here with more of a glowing nobility, but this doesn't make it any less effective.
Despite wonderful brass moments such as this, I think it’s the string playing that impressed me most. Their sound is always remarkable, not least in the Sixth Symphony, where the very opening allows them to show off their enormous dynamic range: full of rich tone one moment, moving to a barely audible pianissimo the next. Furthermore, their immaculate passagework is on display in the second movement, where pages of quiet semiquavers are played to perfection. Even something as simple as the cellos playing bouncing octave quavers in the last movement is shaped and articulated with such care.
So, for anyone interested in the music of Sibelius, I humbly suggest that you absolutely need to have this disc in your collection! Even if you already own Vänskä’s earlier cycle with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, I think that these new performances are simply unmissable. An outstanding achievement in every way.