Herbert Blomstedt / San Francisco Symphony

Sibelius: The Symphonies

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Decca has been releasing cycles of the symphonies of Sibelius about once a decade since the introduction of the long playing record. In the '50s, there was the stern-faced Anthony Collins with the lean London Symphony Orchestra. In the '60s, there was the baby-faced Lorin Maazel with the lush Vienna Philharmonic. In the '80s, there was the craggy-faced Vladimir Ashkenazy with the powerful Philharmonia Orchestra. In the '90s, there was the poker-faced Herbert Blomstedt with the colorful San Francisco Symphony. Each cycle has its advocates. Those who like their whiskey neat tend toward the Collins/LSO. Those who like their martinis dry incline in the direction of the Maazel/VPO. Those who like their vodka ice cold and 110 proof prefer the Ashkenazy/PO. And those who like herb tea with warm milk go for the Blomstedt/SFS.

In 2006, with four cycles to choose from for re-release, Decca gave the nod to the Blomstedt/SFS. Although a skillful and experienced conductor, Blomstedt's interpretations too often paper over the rough edges and smooth over the raw power of Sibelius' gnomic and gnarly symphonies. Where the First calls for grand tragedy, Blomstedt opts for a dull ache. Where the Second calls for epic heroism, Blomstedt opts for relaxed lyricism. Where the Third calls for pastoral mystery, Blomstedt opts for classical clarity. Where the Fourth calls for abysmal declivities, Blomstedt opts for cool lucidities. Where the Fifth calls for ineluctable inevitability, Blomstedt opts for unperturbed tranquility. Where the Sixth calls for luminous evanescence, Blomstedt opts for simply clean lines. And where the Seventh calls for transcendental magnificence, Blomstedt opts for merely clear grace. Fine as far as they go, other conductors have gone much further into the glorious and fuliginous music of Sibelius than Blomstedt does -- among them Collins, Maazel, and Ashkenazy. Decca's digital sound is warm, rounded, and full, but not, in the final analysis, big enough for the scale of the music.

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