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4.7 out of 5 stars
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4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 16 March 2004
To many Sibelians Sir John Barbirolli's 1960's cycle of the complete symphonies with the Halle Orchestra is one of the finest ever recorded. Unlike today's conductors who tend to take a "one size fits all" approach to these works,Sir John takes them on as individual works that should not all be played the same. Tempos for example may be broad in some works and brisk in others. Orchestral detail is also finally balanced. Many of Sibelius' subtle woodwind details that many drown out with the strings are here heard in their proper perspective. Foremost though is the sense of atmosphere and drama that is essential in making these symphonies work. Under Barbirolli they are never lacking. The orchestral works which fill out this generous set are equally well done.Although these recordings have been available by EMI's Japanese susidiary for over a decade this is the first release in the US and Europe of the complete recordings. It was a long time coming but it was well worth the wait!
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on 22 June 2011
I have long wanted to explore Sir John's interpretations of the Sibelius Symphonies, and here they all are in one box, together with several other orchestral pieces on 5 discs at an amazingly low price. Given that the recordings are now quite old, the digital remastering works fine for me - after all it's the musical interpretations I was after first and foremost.

Barbirolli was certainly his own man when it came to Sibelius (who effusively complimented his performances - as he did with all conductors!), and has strong views on the tempi, which might at first startle those familiar with the works. I found myself holding my breath in thrall at the majestically slow climax to Symphony 2 for example - this being one of my favourite works of all time.

I can thoroughly recommend this set to anyone wanting a quality set of Sibelius at budget price, either as a starter set or to compare against other versions. And the several orchestral pieces included are a bonus - but be gentle with the complex casing, as mine broke as I tried to get at one of the more awkwardly hidden discs!
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on 28 September 2001
What can I say? What can I add to the peaens of praise already written??
Except this: I too grew up with Barbirolli's Sibelius. I will never, ever forget 'getting into' the Fifth Symphony for the very first time. This recording could well be the definitive version of this 'granite slab' of music - the word 'symphony' is almost inadequate. It is breathless, rapt, invigorating...alive.
One loves Sibelius - emotionally - for those unmatched moments in his works when your pulse quickens and your heart almost stops beating: the closing bars of both the 1st and 3rd movements of the Fifth Symphony; the bars where, in the achingly personal slow movement of the icy Fourth Symphony, Sibelius finally allows the mournful main theme to thaw out, flow from its imprisonment in the woodwind and then swell out, into the full orchestra - but all too briefly; the breathless sense of rising anticipation that one hears during the busy recapitulation in the opening movement of the Third (said by Sibelius to represent fog rolling in from the English Channel); also the powerful, rousing, climactic ending to the Third's brassy finale; the whole of the sublime Sixth Symphony, which one loves as one loves a shy friend; and the opening of the Seventh, as well as the choral-like ending, with its rapt sense of otherworldiness, that carries its spirit into realms that are beyond mere music. Sibelius fans will know exactly what I mean.
The Seventh Symphony could well rate as the second-greatest musical work of the 20th century. First place: La Mer.
When it comes to Sibelius, Barbirolli is your only man. The Halle Orchestra is the 'instrument' he plays, with utter virtuosity.
A love affair with this composer, this conductor and this orchestra is one that age will never dim.
Vive Sibelius!
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on 3 March 2000
My memory of this recording is that Sir John took the tempi "broad and slow". There is a warmth in the playing that makes Sibelius a spiritual experience for me. The slow movement of the 3rd is what I found most moving. Especially when the movement recaps and the basses are drifting deeply in halfnote triplets.
I had this set on LP when I was a teenager and it was my prized piece in my collection. I've been waiting for this to come out since 1980, and it's been a cruel, gruelling wait.
Other great moments (it's been 21 years so, be lenient on me if you don't agree) are;
trumpet crescendo in the 1st symphony - this was described to me by a Toronto record shop owner (Bruce Certes) as "like Appollo 8 taking off to the moon".
Second Symphony, very meditative slow movement and if the coda in the finale doesn't rise you out of your comfy chair and force you to conduct your stereo, then you don't understand Sibelius!
Third Symphony, never rushed, ever, and this I love. Sir John knows just when to hold a phrase and when to move on. I've yet to hear another acceptable performance of this work.
Fourth... well, when I was a teen I didn't understand the work. I've forgotten how Sir John did it and I'm very anxious to here it now.
Fifth... glorious, just plain glorious.
Sixth... inner woodwinds hidden in the inner movements in your other recordings? They won't be now. Heavenly music.
Seventh... Absolutely gorgeous slow intro. The only quirk on the entire set (for me) is the very, very last note at the end of the symphony. It seems cut short. It's been 20 years since I've seen the score, but could it be a quarter note? If it is, it's a similar interpretive problem as the half note Beethoven used at the very end of the Eroica (for me anyway).
If you love Sibelius, buy it... it's imperative.
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on 8 March 2000
It's impossible to praise this collection highly enough. Barbirolli's version of the 5th symphony is edge-of-the-seat stuff - particularly the last movement, which he takes more slowly than other conductors and builds the tension up to almost unbearable levels, with a glorious release in the final chords. I'd defy anyone to listen to this and not have their life changed - it's as stirring as that. The control is amazing. No orchestra ever delivered a pianissimo like the Halle under Glorious John. The re-mastering is superb. This symphony alone should stand as the Authorised Version - but the others are just as striking, moving, intelligent .... and 5 CD's at that price! Buy it. You won't regret it.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 2 October 2014
Although I also have the near-perfect Vanska set of the Sibelius symphonies and other works, I'm not sure which I'd save from the fire, that or this marvellously rough-hewn five-disc set by Barbirolli and the great Halle Orchestra from the late sixties (and, in the case of the 6th, as late as 1970).
I always feel as though 'Glorious John' - as Barbirolli came to be known - is, as we are, on a voyage of discovery through these seven unique symphonies, not to mention the many other works recorded and collected on this beautifully presented box set of most of what makes the Finn one of the most wonderful and individual of composers. (Coming to his music for the first time must be a great discovery in itself.)
The conductor often sounds like he's feeling his way, even though of course he'd known and admired these works for years. Little is taken for granted, which gives these recordings a quality they too rarely receive on disc, one that allows listeners to feel as if they are in that Nordic landscape, breathless among the forests and lakes, in the frosted winter or awed by the thaw of spring.
The first two symphonies are given plenty of heft by the Halle, the first sounding at times almost (Johann) Straussian, or at least Brahmsian, in its late Romantic optimism, with the second equally impressive.
Certain of these performances have come in for fairly stern criticism in some quarters, but I'm having none of it. There will be better recordings of one or two of these works, no doubt about it, but rather Barbirolli's rough-round-the-edges integrity than the gloss of many a recording, past or more recently. For example, the sheen of Karajan's admittedly powerful, pristine readings of the symphonies isn't to be sniffed at, but I'd far rather have the scent of pine and feel of snow underfoot that I get with these classic recordings, or with Vanska's more recent ones.
You get so much for your money with this set - a Sibelian banquet no less. A very welcome bonus are the reproductions of the original LP covers that are included, half-hidden behind the discs themselves. There's an excellent booklet too. I would never wish to be without this set.
Disc 1 alone is worth the price: Finlandia, the Karelia Suite, Pohjola's Daughter, Valse Triste, and the Lemminkainen Suite, all before you reach the 1st and 4th symphonies on Disc 2.
To me Sibelius is the ultimate perfect symphonist, more so even than worldy Mahler or astounding Beethoven, or that other perfectionist Brahms. These seven great and endlessly rewarding, infinitely unknowable works, and the sometimes otherworldly tone poems, are for me some of the most haunting, awe-inspiring masterpieces of the whole classical repertoire.
Barbirolli and his northern orchestra do Sibelius more than proud.

A set to treasure always.
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on 28 November 2009
If you have no other set of Sibelius symphonies you should have this one. Performances/recordings are from LP originally and over a period of years, but they feel like a complete set with different symphonies inviting its own unique interpretation. This is not an homogeneous set, nor should it be. Recordings are excellent, given different venues, studio and Kings Hall in the main, nice and resonant if a little close at times, but very 'immediate'. The Halle playing is variable at times but never less than fully committed to Sir John's wonderful vision of these fantastic symphonies. A 'must-have' in my book, but alongside other performances possibly. Try the Naxos Sakari/Iceland Symphony Orchestra set by way of comparison - more distant recording but excellent performances by a Finnish conductor and super orchestral playing- don't dismiss this set either by way of possible comparison.
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on 7 November 2009
There is something special about this set, it is really one to treasure. Everything is right about this release. It is a glorious collection of some of the most wonderful music ever composed. It's already brought me great pleasure and will continue to do so.
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on 25 April 2011
There is much that is good in this set, but there are three things at least to take on board at the outset. Firstly, the recording quality is a tad variable; secondly, Barbirolli has a penchant for unnecessarily trenchant string openings; thirdly, his view of all these works is heroic/dramatic. The Second Symphony shows conductor and orchestra on top form. The excitement arises from the music itself rather than its interpretation: nothing is overdone or pulled around and the performance is as uplifting as you could wish for. Likewise, the Fifth is a terrifically energetic reading and another undoubted high spot. The speed of the finale seems right to me: it is measured but not as slow as, for instance, Sergiu Celibidache's version with the Swedish Radio SO on Deutsche Grammophon (way beyond two standard deviations of the norm). The end of the first movement is tremendously exciting, and there is a vital sense throughout of forward propulsion, particularly important in this symphony where in passive hands the middle can sag.

On the other hand, for me the Third really won't do at all. Barbirolli seems not to have registered that the musical focus has shifted and that this symphony is about nature, not drama - it is closer to the Sixth than the Second. He loads it with an unfortunate portentousness and each of its three movements is slower than the music can bear. This is worst in the second subject of the first movement and the whole of the second, where there is nothing "con moto" or "quasi allegretto" about the andantino. In the finale, Barbirolli signally fails to act on the instruction "con energia" when the pendulum-like final tune appears on strings, and this is emblematic of the performance as a whole. Much the same criticisms can be levelled at the Sixth. The start of the finale is so rough and insensitive it makes you wince. Later on, there is no allowance for relaxation and the strings are annoyingly choppy. Nor is it just about speed - Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg SO are about the same, Rattle and the CBSO (my favourite) more measured - it is more that it is all rather perfunctory. One gets the impression everyone is glad to get it over with.

The First Symphony is rather unremitting. The recording makes for uncomfortable listening: the woodwind are too closely miked and brought so far forward they sound in front of the strings (a recurrent feature, though one does get used to it). The cellos are distinctly underweight and the strings as a whole scratchy; once the arresting opening is over they also have a tendency to scrappiness. The slow movement drags: the strings are choppy and the raspy cellos unpleasant on the ear. After a sparky scherzo the emotion is laid on with a trowel in the finale, particularly at the end. Influenced by Tchaikovsky the young Sibelius may have been, but he was not about to turn into him: Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia on Decca still get the Russian influence here - perhaps more Borodin than Tchaikovsky, in fact - but are cleaner and, well, more Sibelian.

Conversely, Barbirolli's Fourth I actually like a lot. It is not as chilly an interpretation as many, where the temperature is not the cold of the Finnish winter but of austerity and pessimism, and the warmer quality makes it for me more accessible. Where some conjure up just a cold landscape, here one senses a person in a cold landscape. This is not to say that it loses anything in drama - the climax of the slow movement has a Brucknerian quality - but a hint of thaw is welcome in this wintry work. Again, there is a lack of subtlety from the strings, whose Tapiola-like tremolandi in the first movement are threatening but not initially pianissimo, and the woodwind soloists are not heard clearly above them. The Fourth is, however, both better played and better recorded than the First, with which it shares a disc. Finally, Barbirolli's Seventh shares the immediacy and propulsion of the Second and Fifth. Rattle/CBSO (Decca, 1987) is still my favourite: this performance has a tremendous cumulative power and is better recorded than Colin Davis/Boston SO (Philips, 1975), which tends to blare, and the three occurrences of the C major trombone theme feel genuinely monolithic, like Stonehenge or a Rothko. Barbirolli, though, is well-paced and exciting, the repeated trombone theme noble and cathartic; and though (again) the woodwind is unduly prominent (coarse oboes and spotlit flutes) and the string tone unpleasantly raspy in places, it is performance I feel I will return to.

Sound quality throughout is average to good, though the largely unblendable oboes are either piquant or acidic depending on your point of view, and the lower strings can definitely sound rough (the First and Seventh Symphonies, for instance). Having pointed out the less felicitous performances where I think they exist, however, one can't lose sight of the fact that this five disc set retails at only £14 - for the cost of a single full-price CD you are getting performances of some symphonies (2, 4, 5 and 7) that will give you much pleasure on repeated hearings, some more discussable versions of others, and a whole lot of other stuff which at its best is as desirable as the best of the symphonic works. Just be prepared to look further afield for the rest.
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on 18 December 2013
I haven't listened to Sibelius for many years although my dad used to play his symphonies regularly. There are a number of versions but not being an expert I just opted for Barbirolli having some Elgar by him which I love. I was not disappointed by the box set. In fact I have played little else in the last few weeks. Numbers 1,3,5,7 and 2 are simply wonderful. I am less familiar with 4 and 6 but they wil grow on me no doubt. Swan of Tuonela, Karelia Suite, Finlandia and Lemminkainen Suite....all exceptional. This set is such a bargain and will give hours and hours of pleasure. Treat yourself.
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