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 Recording of the Week  BIS and the Sibelius Edition

The new Sibelius Edition on Swedish record label BIS is quickly turning into one of the finest discographies of any composer ever made. In the past Philips were of course famous for their complete Mozart Edition, and DG for their Complete Beethoven Edition, but both of these notable achievements pale into the shadows when compared to the treatment that Sibelius is receiving from BIS.

Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius

The label BIS was founded by Robert von Bahr back in 1973 and ever since then it has been one of his dreams to record every note which the great composer wrote. Since the mid 1980s they have released a steady flow of recordings featuring everything from the most popular (such as symphonies and violin concerto) to the very rare, previously unrecorded gems. And in 2007, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sibelius's death, they began repackaging these into a new series of 13 volumes spread over 65 discs which, when complete, will contain the composer's complete output. The series, being drawn mainly but not exclusively from previously recorded material, has just past the halfway point – having recently reached Volume 7, and as we’ve just started a 25% off BIS special offer it seemed a good moment to mention it.

I hold Robert von Bahr and his label in the highest regard. The sound quality of their recordings is consistently superb, and they only make recordings where they feel they have something new to say. As a result they generally steer clear of the major repertoire and concentrate on less well-known works and composers – people like Martinu, Nielsen, Leifs, Skalkottas and Holmboe for example. When they do go more mainstream it is normally with quite stunning results - Osmo Vänskä’s Beethoven cycle with Minnesota, and Suzuki’s ongoing Bach Cantata cycle being two of the more recent obvious examples.

In matters of sound quality BIS have always been pushing the boundaries. Many of Neeme Järvi's Sibelius recordings for example released back in the 1980s came with a big red ‘WARNING’ notice on the front, and a explanation on the back that read:

“Contrary to established practice this recording retains the staggering dynamics of the ORIGINAL performance. This may damage your loudspeakers, but given first-rate playback equipment you are guaranteed a truly remarkable musical and audio experience. Good luck”

Although this seems at first somewhat over the top, I think too many recordings these days fall into the ‘mezzo-piano to mezzo forte only’ range, which of course is essential if you want to listen to it in the car or have it on in the background whilst doing something else. But if you want to sit down and listen to a work as you might hear it in the concert hall (and incidentally as the composer actually wrote it), ranging from the quietist barely audible pianissimo to the loudest almost ear-ringing fortissimo, then that is a completely different experience, and BIS is definitely the label for you.


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