Dip Your Ears... ( 57 ) 

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J. Sibelius, Symphonies, Violin Cto., Tone Poems, Ashkenazy/LPO/Belkin
There is no dearth of great Sibelius cycles - many are very good and all are less controversially regarded as good than most cycles of other symphonists. Small countries have gone to war over which Mahler cycle is the best, families have separated over Bruckner questions along Wand vs. Celibidache vs. Jochum lines... and small arms fire must on occasion decide which LvB cycle receives the imprimatur.

No such emotions when it comes to the cool Sibelius symphonies. Wouldn't be prudent. Too much good stuff is out there... and even if it were not the necessary top choice, few lovers of Sibelius would claim not to be able to live with any of the three Colin Davis cycles (Ia, Ib, II, IIIa, IIIb) or Osmo Vänskä's on BIS or the almost-complete Karajan cycle on DG or Berglund's EMI traversal. Some English people might even accept the Rattle cycle as sufficient - and only a few people would sneer at the Barbirolli set of Sibelius's 7... although that's already one-and-a-half steps out of the mainstream.

I personally hold Vänskä in the highest regard - but Vladimir Ashkenazy makes a good point in his recordings for those who claim he's a better conductor than a pianist. Indeed, if price is an issue, too, I'd place his cycle at the very top of my list. He's improved as a conductor over the years, but in this one he was already ahead of himself. It is solidly played throughout all the symphonies and then some. Not as 'safe' as Järvi in either of his two (somewhat disappointing) cycles, not quite as all-out as Vänskä. Cool but with northern fire. A true rival to the Boston Colin Davis set. Excellent attacks and a lyrical side. In the reissue Decca threw in the tone poems and the violin concerto - all at a great price. These performances might be supplemented in individual symphonies according to one's own taste and preference (Barbirolli 2nd, Celibidache, or Bernstein 5th, for example) - but they leave little to desire and I can only wish that I would have had them as my first and basic Sibelius set instead of Maazel. (No offense, Lorin!)

Very much recommended.

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