Review: Sibelius' Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 on SACD

After becoming music director of the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003 Osmo Vänskä began recording an excellent multi-channel SACD set of Beethoven symphonies with his new group. The Finnish conductor has since returned to the work of his countryman Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), recording this multi-channel SACD of the composer's most popular symphonies, Nos. 2 & 5. Vänskä's earlier traversal of Sibelius's seven symphonies, with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra of Finland, was recorded fifteen years ago, also for the Swedish BIS label that has released this new SACD version. (The earlier set is now available in the United Sates only in a specially priced 4 CD box that is also well worth owning.)

The earlier Sibelius cycle was recorded in 1996-97 in Finland in richly satisfying 2.0, while the new 2011 version from Minnesota release was given a 5.0 Surround sound treatment at the acoustically excellent Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Apparently the decision to re-record the symphonies was based on Vänskä's deepened interpretations of these works, but the availability of the newer technology offered some additional incentive as well, according to the orchestra's spokespeople. Though tempos have changed I'm frankly not convinced that very much has advanced, artistically or sonically, from the very high bar set by the earlier CD set.

The BIS team, led by producer Rob Suff and sound engineer Thor Brinkmann, make no bones about their goals - they aim to capture, through their surround recording techniques, nothing more, nor less, than a faithful recreation of the concert hall sonic experience. That they do here, and the clarity of brass and wind solos is highlighted through the use of the center channel. Low strings add only a very subtle degree of ambient resonance through the rear channels. The "hammer blow" chords of the Fifth Symphony's finale pack a punch but the whole listening experience is a bit underpowered. For those wanting to explore Sibelius' rich and mysterious sound world in 5.0 this is a satisfactory - and frankly the only - multi-channel choice.