Neeme Järvi’s (First) Sibelius Set

cover BIS-CD-622-24

SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1-7 / Gothenburg Symphony Orch.; Neeme Järvi, cond / Bis CD-622-24

This set of the complete Sibelius Symphonies by the conductor I’ve come to refer to as “Pop Järvi” (since two of his sons, Bravo Paavo and Kristjan, are also conductors) is his first, his second cycle being recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. In my view, it is the most exciting set of these works in modern sound, rivaling the recordings of Symphonies 1-3 & 5 by the legendary Robert Kajanus, who was Sibelius’ favorite interpreter of his works. (By the way, ignore the designation on the album cover that Kullervo is included. It isn’t. It’s a three-CD set, and each CD is packed from start to finish with the symphonies. Järvi’s recording of Kullervo is available separately, on Bis CD-313.)

The difference seems to be the tendency towards presenting what is in these scores as opposed to certain critics trying to “read” something into the music that simply isn’t there. The most positive review I’ve read online admits that Järvi has studied and absorbed these scores, that he pays attention to the minutest detail, but that he somehow doesn’t “get” Sibelius, but the recordings everyone else likes are those with a lot of Romanticisms in them, a lot of “warmth” and tempo fluctuations, none of which is indicated in the scores. The Kajanus recordings prove as much and, yes, Sibelius was thrilled by them.

With that being said, I do feel that Järvi is a little cooler in the slow movements of the first and fourth symphonies than Kajanus was, and if that’s a failing then so be it, but I’d rather have a little less moosh in these works than muscle. Sibelius’ model for his symphonies was NOT Bruckner or Brahms; he was his own man, and what he wrote he expected to be played with feeling.

And make no mistake, you hear details in these recordings that elude a great many of Neeme’s rivals, including not only Leif Segerstam (who gave us some very exciting moments but many more that were too slow and Romantic) but also his son Paavo. Neeme Järvi later re-recorded these symphonies with the same orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon, but to be honest only the Fifth is an improvement over this Bis version. (For the record, Paavo Järvi’s Sibelius set on RCA-BMG has gotten uniformly worse reviews than that of his father.)

One of the things I really like about this set is the 3-D orchestral sound. Kajanus tried, bless his Finnish heart, but the dull, dated 1930-32 sonics worked against him. Sir Thomas Beecham, whose Sibelius recordings also get short shrift even though he was the composer’s favorite conductor of his music in the post-Kajanus world (and whose tempi were often even faster), achieved only slightly better clarity than Kajanus.

As usual in most Neeme Järvi performances, forward propulsion of the music takes precedence, yet his phrasing is never so clipped that the legato is impaired. In the slow movement of the Fourth, for instance, he draws out particularly mysterious sounds which contrast nicely with the relatively jolly final movement, and the various moods in the slow movement of the Second are perfectly judged and executed. The Gothenburg Orchestra had a generally bright profile anyway, particularly in its strings and brass; during his tenure with the orchestra, Järvi often referred to it as his “Vienna Philharmonic.” (He called the other orchestra of which he was music director, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, his “Berlin Philharmonic” because of their more burnished sound.)

Personally, I prefer this set not only to Segerstam’s but also to either of Finnish conductor Osmo Vänska’s sets, which I find to be more superficial in feeling. Yes, there are moments when I felt that Segerstam’s Helsinki Philharmonic had a more substantial sound and thus a more visceral impact on certain sections, but I just couldn’t take his ultra-slow readings of various movements.

As is so often the case in sets of this sort (Vänska’s first set with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra was an exception), the symphonies are programmed out of order: Nos. 1 & 4 on CD 1, 2 and 5 on CD 2, and Symphonies 3, 6 & 7 on CD 3. Not ideal programming, but if you purchase this as a download you can easily arrange them in the proper order (CD 1 will run 80 minutes exactly), but having them on 3 CDs makes the set more affordable than many others which are spread out onto four CDs (including Järvi’s later remake on DG). The brass crescendos in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony are hair-raising, as they should be, and Järvi gives this slow music more muscle than we hear in many a rival recording. (I tend to think of Järvi as a sort of “junior Artur Rodziński,” the latter being one of my all-time favorite conductors and a man who, in turn, I sometimes refer to as “the junior Toscanini.”)

Personally, looking at the scores as you listen to these recordings, I don’t really understand why these recordings are in such disrepute. I found nothing objectionable about any of them except one thing: Järvi never, ever gives you a “soft” orchestral profile, and ever since John Barbirolli recorded these symphonies that seems to be what everyone wants in this music. Except me…and hopefully, except you.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Neeme Järvi’s (First) Sibelius Set

    • Ha! Well, that shows you how the set has been “reduced” over the years by Naxos as both streaming audio and downloads. Fortunately, as a reviewer, I didn’t have to pay for it so I didn’t get robbed, but thanks for the info.


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