Guest Blog- Foster Beyers on the 5 Essential Sibelius 7 recordings

Conductor Foster Beyers is the newly appointed Director of Orchestras at Concodia College in Minnesota. He is currently completing his Doctorate degree at the University of Minnesota, where his dissertation is on the recorded history of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 7. He’s also along time Vftp reader and frequent, and valued, commenter. With Sibelius 7 very much on my radar and that of my colleagues in the orchestra over in Guildford, I asked Foster if he could give us a sneak peak into his research and offer his Top 5 essential recordings of this great piece.

Readers are warmly invited to offer your own lists, or perhaps just to pick a record that has special meaning for you. Perhaps there was a live performance you heard that shaped your feelings for the piece?


Your question about the 5 best Sibelius 7 recordings is intriguing. After careful consideration I have compiled the following.(arranged in no particular ranking).
1. Serge Kousseveitsky and the BBC Symphony – This is the first ever recording of the work made in 1933, only 9 years after the premiere. It is astoundingly well played and well recorded as well as being very exciting and dramatic. [Ed. note: this is a seriously great recording which you can hear on YouTube]
2. Osmo Vanska and the Lahti Symphony – This recording is now the standard bearer for Sibelius interpretation. It is probably closest to the score (with a few notable exceptions) and seems to capture the particularly icy way in which  the Finns play Sibelius. They will have none of the warm, lush Sibelius style so common in England as typified by Colin Davis.
3. Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic – This often quirky recording seems to capture the epic nature of the work and is the best of his three recordings. The one with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is interesting but ultimately lacks weight while the more recent recording with the London Philharmonic (with alot of comically audible grunts and groans from the maestro) is more quirky and less epic
4. Leif Segerstam and the Danish National Radio Symphony – OK, so Segerstam is Finnish but he does seem to favor a lush, warm string sound. This recording is the most emotional,thrilling, and dramatic (even Wagnerian) recording of the work ever made. He goes for atmosphere and character and the score be damned. I like it.
5. Karajan and the Philharmonia – This is the only recording we know for certain that Sibelius approved. He always said he liked the details to “swim in the sauce” and they certainly do in this very slow and rich performance.
Dishonorable mention: Any recording by Beecham. Although the conductor was personally acquainted with the composer I find his recordings of this particular symphony to be way off base in their extreme speed and lack of sensitivity.  It gets a dishonorable mention because I am pretty sure Beecham is the reason Sibelius is quoted as saying conductors don’t know how to conduct a real adagio anymore. This caused him to create a list of metronome markings for all his symphonies, a huge advantage for interpreters today!

You can see Foster’s own take on the piece with him conducting  the University of Minnesota Symph over at YouTube here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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8 comments on “Guest Blog- Foster Beyers on the 5 Essential Sibelius 7 recordings”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    Great list from Foster.

    A couple of thoughts…

    I really love the sound of the Berglund/Chamber Orchestra of Europe recording if taken on its own merits. It’s not that I would only want to hear the piece with so few strings, but I do feel that hearing it this way is informative. My performance last night was with 8 first violins tapering down to 3 basses. It works really well with that size band (same size as the orchestra Sibelius conducted it with), and even then, you can struggle to hear some of the low flute writing.

    I have mixed feelings about Ormandy’s recording. He was close to Sibelius and loved him dearly.

    His 7th is well worth a listen- the Philly strings are wonderful. Sadly, in a moment of madness, he murders the end of the piece by adding a trumpet to the string melody. The result is somewhere between grotesque and hilarious.

    Another conductor whose Sibelius I have a soft spot for is Kurt Sanderling. His take is always quite individual, and, in its way, very faithful to the score. You can get his whole Sibelius cycle from Brilliant for about 14 bucks. His 7th is quite successful, and he gets bonus points for doing Sibelius in Germany when it wasn’t trendy.

  2. Foster Beyers

    Thanks for allowing me to be a guest! I am a fan of all the Berglund recordings but I think the music suffers a little from too much clarity as in the COE recording. Sanderling’s Sibelius is always excellent and I am also a big fan of Petri Sakari and the Iceland Symphony on Naxos. On the whole it is the most tasteful and fulfilling cycle available. He is a hugely underrated conductor of Sibelius and Bruckner. I also should mention Akeo Watanabe, a Japanese conductor whose mother was Finnish. He has a wonderful way of playing Sibelius which is almost weightless. The orchestra sounds intense without ever forcing the sound. His cycle with the Helsinki Philharmonic is very hard to come by in the states. I had a friend from Japan get it for me there.

    Congrats on your first Sibelius 7!


  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Foster-

    Here’s a funny true story about Berglund and the COE recording….

    A friend of mine is a violinist in the LPO. When he was coming to do a bunch of Sibelius with them a few years ago, she, like many of her colleagues, tracked down the COE recording so she would have and idea of what to expect from him.

    Not long into rehearsals, Berglund begged the LPO to stop playing like the COE. “Please don’t imitate that recording,” he said “it is all too clear and precise. Sibelius should have more mystery and texture” Possibly not his exact wording, but you get the point.

    I think there’s room for a chamber orchestra recording that isn’t quite as brightly spotlit as that one. Northern Sinfonia (usually 8-10 first violins) made technically supremely accomplished recordings of he 3rd and 6th, although some of the tempos are very strange. I’d love to do a Sibelius disc with Orchestra of the Swan, and see if we can get the best of both words- the transparency of a small string section, with plenty of haze, depth a mist where called for.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Erik. It’s official. I’m a Gibby convert- bought the whole cycle on CD. Other than some slightly disappointing trumpet playing, everything I’ve heard is first rate.

    I wonder what readers think of Bernstein’s Sibelius? Maazel’s? Do chime in!

  5. Tom Chambers

    I just happened today to come across the pointer to this post, 5 days after Maazel has passed on, so I will respond to your 3-year-old offer to chime in on Maazel. I am pretty certain that (except for my own amateur band’s performances) the only Sibelius symphonies I have heard live in concert have been under Maazel– 2 and 5 with Cleveland, 2 and 7 with Pittsburgh (I don’t get out much anymore). Also I have his old VPO recording of 5 and 7. I am not familiar with the versions by Gibson, Vanska, Berglund etc. so I cannot compare. Maazel favored a big dark orchestra sound in Sibelius. Interpretively he did his push/pulling of tempos for dramatic effect and this left me a little cold in the 2nd, but in 5 and 7 his versions seemed effective and not over-wrought. In fact I still pull out and play that LP of his VPO 7th probably once a year (must have bought it 40 years ago) and it never fails to move me. But as I recall it was panned by the High Fidelity critic when it came out, so what do I know.

    General thoughts on Maazel based on his years in Cleveland– I was not a huge fan, but there were a lot of things he did that were at least interesting and in the right repertoire he was genuinely exciting. His concerts were always worth going to (well almost; I remember one…). Unfortunately I missed his Elektra, which might have been the high point of those years.

  6. scott

    “I wonder what readers think of Bernstein’s Sibelius? Maazel’s? Do chime in!”

    I haven’t given Maazel’s cycle the attention I’m quite sure it deserves, but I’ve heard Bernstein’s NYPO cycle and found it incredibly disappointing—overly mannered for my liking. For context, I like Davis’s first cycle, with Boston, and love Blomstedt’s with San Francisco, and am very fond of Ashkenazy’s with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

    I’ve enjoyed all three of Berglund’s as well —I agree that the COE can be a bit light at times, but I find the clarity invigorating, even if I’d never choose it as my primary cycle. Rozhdestvensky and Sanderling are both are perhaps overly ponderous and even a bit crass, but as variations, they’re a bracing diversion.

    Barbirolli’s cycle may have been the first one I feel in love with, but I haven’t heard it in…well, maybe not this century. I should probably rectify that.

  7. Ralph West

    I have recordings by Berglund, Bernstein, Ashkenazy, Davis, Barbirolli et al. Barbirolli adds a definite thwack on the last chtord, which I suppose signifies physical death before the spirit soars from B natural to C in the strings. Very dramatic. But, sorry folks, I think the most drop-dead gorgeous account of this account is Ormandy on the Sony re-relaese. What an unbelievably magnificent instrument he had in the Phildelphia Orchestra. Yes, he duplicates, in the trumpets, the strings’ final rise from B to C at the end, but so did Koussevitzky. Ormandy doesn’t need the. trumpets, but I can’t worry about that. I sing through this recording from first to last, and it is unbelievably gorgeous. The final dark string chord on the C chord sustains a riveting experience right up to the end. Yes, Ormandy was capable of kitsch — as when he has the violins in the Waltz of the Flowers shoot up an octave in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and in the hymn with the Mormon Tabernacle in Finlandia. Granted! But, folks, you have to recognize greatness when you hear it. This recording is gripping and gorgeous beyond belief! What a supreme artist the much-condescended-to Ormandy could be, and what an unbelievably great composer was Sibelius!

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