Maurice Abravanel has been conductor of the Utah Symphony for more than three decades, and has brought his forces up to a very impressive level -- the more impressive because it is so consistent.
In their recordings for both Vanguard and Vox, Abravanel and the Utah Symphony have given us some rather remarkable things as well as some merely very good ones. The most remarkable of all is surely their stunning Mahler Second, with Florence Kopleff excelling in the "Urlicht," Beverly Sills in the lesser solo role, and all the choral and orchestral participants giving something like 150 percent to produce a performance of unforgettable conviction (Vanguard/Cardinal set VCS-10003/10004).
The Grieg album for Vox (QSVBX-5140), valuable enough just for giving us an opportunity to hear such rarely performed gems as the Old Norwegian Romance with Variations and the early concert overture In Autumn, happens to be distinguished by the sort of warmhearted flair for the material we used to associate with a Reecham or a Nicolai Malko (what ab underrated musician he was!), with really fine playing and grand sound to boot. More recently, Abravanel gave us a complete Brahms cycle (Vanguard/Cardinal set VCS-10117/10120) that can certainly hold its own amid the high-powered competition, and now, again on Vanguard, but this time in the "Everyman" series, he and his erchestra have got round to the symphonies of Sibelius (SRV-881/884SD); the Sibelius set is a disappointment, but it is not Abravanel's fault.
The performances, I think, are as good as those in their Brahms set, filed with real understanding of the material, real affection for it as well, and again hand-somely played and recorded. Indeed, there is an unusually clear and detailed picture of the contribution of every instrument and instrumental choir; balances are so extraordinarily good, on both Abravanel's part and that of the engineering team (the trusty Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz), that in this respect the set surpasses nearly all of its Sibelian predecessors. The chamber music clarity, even in the most heavily scored passages (which, in Sibelius' case, does not mean, ever, thickly scored), is exciting and revelatory in the truest sense.
What is a good deal less appealing than the performances and the way they are recorded is the way they are laid out in the set. Evidently in the interest of economy, Vanguard has managed to get the seven symphonies on four discs instead of the usual five, and in so doing has devised a gratuitously clumsy sequence in which parts of the Third Symphony, a work which fits quite comfortably on a single side, are not only on two sides (each shared with part of another symphony) but on two different discs. The surface noise that bethered me may not turn up on all capies, but there is no getting away from this layout, the likes of which, in terms of sheer frustration, I have not seen since RCA's presentation of the Brahms piano quartets with Rubinstein and the Guarneri Quartet 10 or 12 years ago.
I hope Vanguard will get round to releasing Abravanel's Sibelius on individual discs, enabling collectors who have recordings of two or three of the symphonies to pick up the others economically without duplicating, and that a more convenient layout will then be devised, even if it does mean running to five discs. If this does happen, Vanguard might then also correct the spelling of the composer's name, which now appears not only on the box but also on each individual disc label as "Jan Sibelius." Enthusiastic radio announcers notwithstanding, "Jan" was never Sibelius' name, even unofficially. He was christened "Johan Julius," and as a young man adopted the French form of his given name, "Jean," in emulation of a seafaring uncle who had done the same. The annotation for the new set happens to have been written by Nicolas Slonimsky, who as editor of Baker's has himself clarified the origins of Sibelius' name, and who must have been the most surprised of all to find "Jan Sibelius" printed on the leaflet which contains his essay.
In the meantime, note must be taken of two recently issued recordings of individual Sibelius symphonies which call for serious attention. One is a brilliant new remake of the Fifth by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who have made it a speciality for years and whose seasoned version is set off in RCA's very handsomest sonic frame, with a stimulating account of En Saga filling out side two (ARL1-2906; also on cassette, ARK1-2906). The other is actually a reissue, newly remastered, of George Szell's elegant and unsentimentalized realization of the Second, with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam (Philips Festivo 6570.084; cassette, 7310.084).