Osmo Vänskä’s recordings with the Lahti Symphony of the seven Sibelius symphonies, along with other orchestral works by the Finnish master, put both conductor and orchestra on the musical map.
Released on the Swedish label BIS during the 1990s and produced by the astute Rob Suff, the recordings introduced a new de-Romanticized — at times bleak but always highly energized and carefully detailed — view of Sibelius’ music that seemed to offer a new voice.
Voted in 1935 the most popular living composer by the audience of the New York Philharmonic, Sibelius had dropped out of favor in ensuing decades, despite being championed by such stalwarts as Colin Davis and Herbert von Karajan. Vänskä’s recordings helped reinstate Sibelius into the top rank, making him seem not just modern but contemporary.
People took notice, and as the recordings, with their brilliant, pinpoint sound, began to win big awards, it was said that eyebrows were raised not so far from Lahti in the nation’s capital, Helsinki, especially at the Helsinki Philharmonic: How could this provincial orchestra from a small city (pop. 100,000) be winning all these awards and gaining such renown?
The Lahti Symphony has continued to prosper under the leadership of Okko Kamu, who will hand over the reins of the orchestra to Dima Slobodeniouk this autumn. Vänskä stepped down in 2008, becoming Conductor Laureate.
Given the success of Vänskä’s affiliation with the Minnesota Orchestra — he became music director in 2003 — after seven years of lax performances under Eiji Oue, it seemed likely that Vänskä would be prompted to re-record the Sibelius symphonies with his new orchestra.
BIS, it turned out, was interested, and Suff, with whom Vänskä has a strong working relationship, was available to produce the discs. The team had already produced a highly regarded set of the Beethoven symphonies.
It was the right idea at the right time. The first release in what was to be a three-disc set — the Second and Fifth Symphonies, issued in January 2012 — earned a Grammy nomination. The second album, featuring the First and Fourth, was put out a year later and won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.
The final entry, to be released internationally Sept. 9, contains three works less often heard either on disc or in the concert hall: Symphonies Nos. 3, 6 and 7. Recorded at Orchestra Hall using the SACD surround-sound system, delivering a spacious and yet up-close sonic experience, the performances of all three symphonies are vivid and powerful and yet abounding in the kind of subtle and nuanced details that have always characterized Vänskä’s readings of Sibelius.
Vänskä’s interpretations here aren’t significantly different from the Lahti set. Tempos in No. 6 are a bit slower this time around, and the elegiac string passages that open the work are more carefully shaped. (This was Vänskä’s calling card, the symphony he conducted in his debut with this orchestra in 2000.) The attacks in the rhythmic folk tune — a Finnish Kalevala tune — that initiates No. 3 are stronger, more punched than in the earlier version.
Two things are different and both are improvements. The overall sound quality, first of all, is bigger, more enveloping, the dynamic range wider. Second is the orchestra itself. As good as the Lahti Symphony was back in the 1990s, the Minnesota Orchestra is a virtuoso ensemble these days, a step higher, and it has more players. The benefit of a larger string section can be heard time and again in these performances, in the chorale for cellos in the second movement of No. 3, for instance — so much richer and fuller than in the Lahti version.
The undercurrent of melancholy resignation, of gentle sorrow, comes through impressively in No. 3, often called Sibelius’ Pastoral Symphony. No. 6, which Sibelius described as a “glass of cool, pure water,” is lean and acerbic, the opening movement crisp and unforced, the deftly played woodwind lines always prominent. No. 7, possibly Sibelius’ greatest symphony, is a continuous and ever-expanding flow of ideas all in one movement. It emerges here with luminous power and the kind of deep string sonority it needs. The fast sections of all three symphonies bristle with a blazing energy that recalls the vintage recordings of one of Vänskä’s idols, Robert Kajanus, the great Finnish conductor who founded the Helsinki Philharmonic
In sum, don’t throw out your Lahti Symphony discs. But the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius set is the one to own.
The disc can be ordered at minnesotaorchestra.org.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.