Top Ear

Maazel’s Raw, Vital Vienna Sibelius

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Jeremy Lee writes

Maazel recorded many works with the Vienna Philharmonic, including symphony cycles of Mahler and Tchaikovsky, but one of the best recordings that came out of that partnership was this, a Sibelius cycle dating from the 1960s, both Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic’s first recorded go at this music.  Maazel would later go on to remake these symphonies digitally for Sony with the Pittsburgh Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic would also perform these works under Bernstein in his late period, but these performances represent both conductor and orchestra at their finest.

Maazel imposes a pretty consistent view on all the symphonies; they are direct, swift and exciting, an approach that brings some drawbacks that I would like to address head-on.  The speedy tempo taken for the 5th symphony’s finale, for instance (a bit more than 8 minutes) may raise a few eyebrows, and Maazel’s relative terseness shortchanges the grandiosity of the “Thor hammer” patterns in the horns (witness in comparison, in a 1992 pirate recording of Celibidache with the Munich Philharmonic, the tremendous intensity and broadness that verges on the epic).  Some may also miss Bernstein (DG)’s perfect proportioning of the climax towards the end of the 7th symphony, instead of Maazel’s zipping through.

The same approach, however, brings great virtues to his rendition of the Third, an interpretation that is possibly the most convincing of all that I have heard.  The final Plagal “A-men” cadence of the first movement has never sounded so reassuringly dignified, nor has the chorale that enters in the middle of the finale struck me as so beautiful and convincing.  Best of all is the unsentimental middle movement, taken at a real “con moto” and imbuing it with balletic grace and fluidity.  The same approach is applied to the Sixth, a cheery and graceful piece under Maazel.  The finale of the Second, often a grab-bag of disconnected episodes under incompetent hands, sounds uncommonly coherent under Maazel’s taut structural control, and thus the final peroration sounds outstandingly fulfilling.  Fulfilling, too is the drive and gripping power Maazel brings to the First symphony.  Thus, Maazel’s fresh and no-nonsense interpretations stand in stark contrast to those slow, smooth and spiritual Sibelius interpretations that we have become accustomed to lately, be it Blomstedt’s solidity, Bernstein’s blazing intensity, or Segerstam’s hyper-richness, not to mention Maazel’s own slower, slightly mannered Pittsburgh remakes.

The Vienna Philharmonic, aside from being top of its form technically, offers some thrillingly gruff and gritty playing, injecting Sibelius’ canvas of a vast Scandinavian landscape with some raw, primal power, and in some instances giving us hair-raising violence, such as the shocking tritone that starts in the lower strings at the start of the Fourth’s first movement, or the terrifying attack back to the scherzo section of the Second, or the bass trombone that snarls its way through the coda of the Seventh.  (It is a pity that this box set does not include Tapiola, a tone poem conveying exactly this sort of violence that might seem out of place or plain overdone in the Seventh.)  Decca gives us its usual rich and slightly boxed-in Sofiensaal sound, but some instruments are miked strangely closely, such as the harp in the Sixth.

This is a very impressive and rewarding Sibelius set, one that I refer to very often, and one that should not be overlooked by prospective buyers seeking for a complete set on a budget.


  • Album name:  Sibelius:  The Symphonies
  • Performers:  Lorin Maazel (conductor);  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Label:  Decca 430 778-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  3:31:59

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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