Osmo Vänskä / Minnesota Orchestra

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4

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Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä recorded this exact pair of Sibelius symphonies for the BIS label in 1996, with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and this 2013 release with the Minnesota Orchestra is recognizably the work of the same artist. However, he has not simply repeated the earlier performance with a new ensemble. The biggest differences come in the Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63, which Sibelius wrote after a cancer diagnosis, convinced that he was at death's door. (He lived another 50 years.) The unbelievably dour finale is sometimes given over to histrionic declarations of gloom. Vänskä shaves almost a minute off the already quick earlier performance, resulting in a reading that some will find slightly dry. But really he just lets the music speak for itself, the Minnesota's trombones cutting off phrases like anvils of death, the cyclical appearance of the tritone interval in the work emerging naturally in the precise work of the Minnesotans (who for all the talk of Finnish musical miracles are at least the equals of their Lahti counterparts) and doing the job of convincing the listener of the music's utter hopelessness. The Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39, is closer to the earlier reading: taut, fast, devoted to the emergence of Sibelius' unique brand of atomized forward motion, precise motivic work that builds up great waves of energy. The Tchaikovskian melody of the slow movement is again somewhat dry, but again the impression created by the whole is very powerful, and it is augmented by the superb work of the BIS engineering team on the musicians' home ground, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Highly recommended, even to those already immersed in Nordic readings of Sibelius.

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