Leonard Bernstein's live recording of Sibelius's First Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic(from 1990, the year Bernstein died), featured on this 3-CD set (and previously out-of-print), is easily the greatest recording of this symphony ever. No one--not even Bernstein himself in his earlier NYP recording for Sony--has brought out the depth and power of this work as Bernstein does in this recording, making a strong case for this symphony as one of the greatest Romantic symphonies of all time.(Those looking for a taut, lean, non-sentimental performance should look elsewhere, but they'd be missing the message of this symphony). The opening clarinet plays the main theme hauntingly and the main theme from the first movement is played like no other recording. Instead of a brisk, no-nonsense tempo that makes this theme sound a bit abrupt, Bernstein draws it out with intense passion, making it sound more Tchaikovskyesque than ever before. Lest one fear that Bernstein is all around too slow in this movement, he speeds up the tempo at just the right moments to create a nail-biting excitement that other performances lack. The slow movement is done beautifully, again with increased tempos in the development to the fast part, making one forget that this is the adagio. The scherzo is very exciting, with the drummers playing their hearts out to keep up with Bernstein's conducting. It is the last movement that really stands out. Bernstein starts it at a very deliberate tempo, to enhance anticipation for what's to come. The "big tune" is, in its first appearance, very powerful, but on the brisk side. The rest of the development is truly astonishing in its excitement but it's the return of the "big tune" that never ceases to amaze me. Bernstein draws it out to tear-jerking effect, making this tune perhaps the most moving one in all of classical music, topped by a crackerjack finale. Throughout, the sound quality is amazing in its realism and clarity(especially the drums and percussion), giving the entire performance a very hard-hitting effect. In sum, this performance of the First Symphony is worth the price of the entire set, as it is the best performance of this work you'll ever find, and one of the greatest classical performances of all time.
The Second Symphony is more idiosyncratic and is at times(especially the second movement)too slow. Still, Bernstein's pacing brings out elements of this score that you won't hear elsewhere, and if it isn't the first choice (try Ormandy/Philadelphia) it remains an important alternative perspective. The Fifth and Seventh Symphonies recieve very powerful performances that can easily be first recommendations (although Bernstein's own earlier Fifth with the NYP is even better), especially with powerhouse sound.
The Elgar was very controversial due to its slow tempos, but like the Second Symphony, remains a viable alternative. The Britten is performed flawlessly and could be anyone's first choice performance of this work.
In short, while everything on these 3 CDs is classic late Bernstein, the First Symphony is worth the price of admission and anyone who likes this work, or is just looking to discover Sibelius's Late Romantic style, must buy this CD set.