5 Records You Should Own: Best Classical BIS

By Rad Bennett

Founded in 1973 by Robert von Bahr, the BIS Records label has focused on superb sound from the very beginning. They were one of the first labels recording digitally and transferring those tracks to hybrid vinyl discs. When the CD arrived, BIS continued to put out audiophile recordings. They bannered their earlier recordings with this – “A BIS original dynamics recording.” We take that for granted now, but back then, suddenly having CDs that were not limited to the dynamic and frequency restraints of vinyl were a big deal.  Early adopters, who embraced the CD, rather than resisting it, eagerly snapped up the new BIS recordings. Now, BIS has gone Hybrid SACD and surround, and they still do.

Like MDG in Germany, BIS has found most of its artists in their own backyard and introduced us to Scandinavian and Finnish orchestras from smaller cities that have proved to be world class. The label has concentrated on the works of previously little recorded composers such as Eduard Tubin, Harald Saeverud,  Vagn Holmboe, and Allan Pettersen. But the label has also taken significant trips abroad, as to Sao Paolo, Singapore, and Japan, where it undertook an enormous project to record all the Bach cantatas with Masato Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan.

BIS prides itself that all of its recordings are still in print, so it has a very large catalog. Respected for sound, BIS has its own permanent engineers and brings in ringers when need be.

In the U. S., BIS is now distributed by Naxos of America.

It’s hard to pick five best out of such a huge catalog, but here are five that I’ve enjoyed tremendously. To save me listing the information each time, they are all Hybrid SACD Surround, meaning they have 2.0 and 5.0 SACD tracks plus regular CD stereo tracks.

5 to Own BIS- GriegGrieg: Sigurd Jorsalfar, Landkjenning, Bergliot, Sorgemarsj over Rikard Nordraak, Den Bergtekne. Haeken Hagegard, baritone; Goerild Masuth, narrator; Bergen Philharmonic  Choir and Symphony Orchestra,; Ole Kristian Ruud, conductor. BIS 1391.

Ruud’s Grieg series for BIS has been justly praised in many circles. His alert and idiomatic readings of both familiar and non familiar compositions has given us a picture of a nationalist composer to reckon with, not just a musician who wrote beautiful melodies.  All of the discs in his series are worth owning. I picked this one because in addition of a more famous piece, it contains some virtually unknown works for baritone, chorus, and orchestra and one track, Landkjenning, a six and a half minute composition of indescribable beauty. It’s literally translated as “Land Sighting,” and musically depicts the feelings, in 995,  that Olav Trygvasson had on returning from England and see the native hills of Norway. This is music that leaps with meaning and ends in grandeur, foreseeing the cathedral that Trygavasson would build in Nidaros. Hagegard was at his peak. This is baritone singing for the ages. The male chorus produced thrilling, spine tingling sounds, soft or loud, and the orchestra plays with warmth and virtuosity.  BIS captures all in sonics that are true to the real thing whether it’s the quiet transition for strings and horn or the rousing finale where all forces join in.  Wonderful dynamic range, not quite so exaggerated as seems the current norm that the quiet passages will almost disappear, but just right. It’s a recording that is so perfect that I’m hard pressed to believe that another could challenge it.  Oh yes, the rest of the works on the disc are knockouts, too.

Further Explorations: Any of Ruud’s Grieg series particularly the buoyant versions of the Symphonic and Norwegian Dances.

5 to Own Kroumata EncoresEncores: Kroumata Percussion Ensemble. BIS 1452.

The Kroumata Percussion ensemble recorded the first digital ly recorded CD in Sweden in 1983 (BIS-232) and has gone on to record around 20 albums for the Swedish audiophile label.

Now, you might think of banging and clanging when you think of a percussion ensemble, but Kroumata would prove you wrong. To sure there are works here like the untitled one by Anders Lougin, scored for twelve cymbals, but most of the music here is quite melodic. Don’t forget, the xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone are percussion instruments. Kroumata also uses a large amount of accordion in its scoring and has, for this recording, imported a few guests: Haekan Hagegard, baritone; Ziya Aytekin, kaval,  mey, and zuma; and Kerstin Frodin, recorder.

The music is largely exhilarating and very accessible and BIS has met the challenge of recording so many different timbres and dynamic levels with expertise. This could be well become your demonstration disc when you want to show off your audio system for visitors. Surround is just for ambience here, having it there gives the front stage more presence and roundness. Soundstage placement is spot on.

Further Explorations: Any of the other discs featuring this virtuoso ensemble. All are astonishing artistically and sonically.

5 to Own BIS Ogawa RachmaninoffRachmaninoff: Piano Concertos 1 & 4, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Noriko Ogawa, piano; Malmo Symphony, Owain Arwel Huighes, conductor. BIS 975.

I’ve discovered a number of excellent overseas soloists in listening to BIS recordings, but none perhaps so outstanding as Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa. Here’s a woman who can thunder out resounding octaves, yet provide the most delicate filigree when needed. She seems to know every sound that the piano  can reproduce and displays that knowledge in every passage she plays, so you can call her dramatic, lyrical, heroic, passionate, and miniaturist all at once and be correct.

She recorded the complete Rachmaninoff piano concertos either side of 2000 and what an international affair! A Russian composer, Japanese pianist, Swedish orchestra, and Welsh conductor! It all works wonderfully well, some passages sounding so fresh that it’s almost like hearing them for the first time. But at the center is Ogawa, one of the most formidable yet still not very well known artists of this era.

BIS is right on the money with the recording, too. The balance between piano and orchestra seems absolutely correct and the balances within the orchestra are exemplary as well.  The burnished brass instruments are especially well served. By the way, if you’ve always tended to toss off the 4th concerto as an also ran, it will gain in stature after you hear this performance.

Further explorations: The other disc  in Ogawa’s Rachmaninoff series, the 2nd and 3rd concertos, her traversal of the complete Tcherepnin piano concertos with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and her radiant discs comprising the complete piano works of Debussy.

5 to own BIS Nielsen 4, 5Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 (the Inextinguishable) & 5. Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orcehstra, Sakari Oramo, conductor. BIS 2028.

BIS is blessed to have three outstanding cycles of the six symphonies by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, though we might pause to remember it was an American, Leonard Bernstein, who popularized them in the 1960s. But back to BIS. Myung-Whun  Chung led the first set with the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble BIS put on the map. At least I’d never heard of it until their recordings appeared, mostly with Neeme Jarvi leading (another discovery by BIS) with a spate or recordings by Chung and a few other conductors. Then came Osmo Vanska with The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Now it’s the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic  conducted by Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo.  As good as the first two series were (and that’s plenty good) the third time turned out to be a charm.

Oramo like his predecessors, captures the mercurial nature of Nielsen’s music to a T, he never misses those rapid ebbs and flows and seems just slightly brisker than the others without  seeming rushed. He sense perfectly the Romantic and Modernist conflicts that pervade most of Nielsen’s music.

And good as the other recordings are, this SACD is even better. Balances are perfect, the surrounds add air and transparency to the front channels. The snare drum in the 5th is realistically loud in its efforts to stop the orchestra, and the timpani duel at the end of symphony 4 is very impressive without being unrealistic.

Further Explorations: Going on the assumption that you can never have too much Nielsen, the Vanksa set on BIS is well worth your time though I must honestly admit that so is the BBC Philharmonic series led by John Storgards on the Chandos label and a 4th and 5th combo led by Jukka-Pekka Sareaste on the Ondine label with the Finnish Radio Symphony.

5 to Own BIS Dvorak FlorDvorak: Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), Czech Suite, My Home. Malaysian Symphony Orchestra, Claus Peter Flor, conductor. BIS 1856.

At first Malaysia seems a strange place to record a Czech composer with a German conductor, but Flor, the orchestra’s music director from 2008-2014, wrought wonders in turning a good provincial ensemble into one that was on the verge of world class.  Unfortunately this meant the dismissal of key musicians and caused a boycott of Malaysian auditions, so Flor was superseded in 2014 by Brazilian conductor Fabio Mechetti.

Flor’s “New World” is expansive and heartfelt with plenty of nuance, but not enough to be fussy. The orchestra plays well for him, the strings and brass are particularly fine. BIS has provided  superb sound, this is the best sounding Dvorak you will hear. The balances are spot on, the timpani sound is the most realistic around and the tuttis ring with power and clarity.  Once again, surround gives better imaging up front and a good sense of the hall where the works were recorded. This is also the most generously filled of Dvorak 9th recordings, all three pieces together spell “homeland,” which is a nice thematic tie in.

Further explorations: Flor also recorded the 7th and 8th symphonies with significant tone poem fillers and these are excellent and worth seeking out.