SIBELIUS Complete Symphonies – Ashkenazy
If sonic splendour were the sole criterion, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Sibelius symphony cycle with the Philharmonia would win every prize going. Only the spectacularly natural results obtained by the BIS technicians for Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti SO come close to matching the lustrous realism of these truthfully balanced Decca productions from 1979-84 (all except the First and Sixth benefit from the glowing acoustic of London’s much-missed Kingsway Hall). Few grumbles, either, about the Philharmonia’s, for the most part, splendidly spick-and-span, committed contribution throughout.
Unfortunately, here Ashkenazy’s actual interpretations have their fair share of ups and downs. The First is a highspot – fresh, ardent and unaffected (by comparison, Segerstam’s recent Helsinki PO version lives much more dangerously). Ashkenazy’s Third exhibits a dramatic fervour and clean-heeled vigour that recall a Decca offering from an earlier era, namely Anthony Collins’s 1954 account with the LSO. This Seventh’s balmy opulence is more genial than granitic at the opposite pole to, say, Berglund’s or Sanderling’s.
On the debit side, the Fifth is scuppered by a hectic fluster about the second half of the first movement. There’s also a beefy literalness which extends to the Sixth, where I crave more in the way of poetic understatement and refined sensibility than these artists muster. In the troubled Fourth, concentration levels are not all they might be. The Second, too, falls short in purposeful grip; I prefer Ashkenazy’s later, rather more cogent and characterful live 1992 Boston version (Decca, 10/93 – nla; happily, the Romance for strings and Valse triste from that same deleted collection are included here).
Elsewhere, both Finlandia and the Karelia Suite go especially well (the latter’s outer movements are paced to swaggering perfection). En saga is evocative and exciting; Tapiola generates impressive sweep and atmosphere, and Elisabeth Söderström makes a commendable showing in Luonnotar. Boris Belkin’s broodingly spacious 1978 version of the Violin Concerto makes its silver-disc début. He’s a bold, impulsive player with heaps of temperament, but his intonation is not terribly alluring, nor is his technique always secure. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia lend big-hearted support, but it’s hardly compulsory listening. The lovely Opp 69 and 77 diptychs fare better.
Overall, then, Ashkenazy’s Sibelius leaves me with distinctly mixed feelings. For a Sibelius symphony cycle within the same price-range, Sir Colin Davis and the Boston SO on a pair of Philips Duos remain the best bet (the anthology containing Nos 3, 6 and 7 also boasts first-rate performances of Tapiola, Finlandia and The Swan of Tuonela, as well as a notable account of the Violin Concerto with Accardo, Davis and the LSO). Likewise, Vänskä’s BIS cycle is a tempting prospect (it’s now on four CDs at mid-price, and includes an arresting Tapiola and the original version of the Fifth). That said, Ashkenazy’s Sibelius is worth sampling at the very least, and, as I say, the Decca engineers certainly serve up manna for the ears.