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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Anthony Collins’ Sibelius Cycle

Disc 1:
Karelia Overture Op.10 [6:57]
Symphony No 1 in E minor Op.39 (1899) [34:30]
Symphony No 7 in C Op.105 (1924) [19:47]
Disc 2:
Symphony No 2 in D Op.43 (1902) [41:54]
Symphony No 6 in D minor Op.104 (1923) [27:54]
Disc 3:
Symphony No 3 in C Op.52 (1907) [24:48]
Pohjola’s Daughter Op. 49 (1906) [12:54]
Pelléas and Mélisande (excerpts) Op.46 (1905) [16:19]
Nightride and Sunrise Op.55 (1907) [14:32]
Disc 4:
Symphony No 4 in A minor Op.63 (1911) [31:01]
Symphony No 5 in E flat Op.82 (1919) [30:39]
London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins
rec. Kingsway Hall, London 1952-1955 in mono (OneSound)
BEULAH 14PD8 [4 CDs: 61:17 + 69:48 + 68:38 + 61:40]
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These recordings have a considerable reputation but were new to me. I wasn’t born when they were made and, generally, I do not get misty-eyed hearing old recordings. I first heard all Sibelius’s symphonies about thirty years ago when, as an impecunious student, I persuaded my father to buy Lorin Maazel’s 1960s Vienna Philharmonic set. Subsequently I have also come to know complete cycles made in the 1970s by Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and in the 1980s by Vladimir Ashkenazy with Philharmonia Orchestra. Below I have made some comparisons with these versions but there are more modern traversals with which I am not familiar - for example Davis’s LSO remakes. Furthermore I haven’t yet managed to collect any Finnish artists – Paavo Berglund has recorded them more than once and cycles from Osmo Vänskä in Lahti and Sakari Oramo in Birmingham are among the most recent to appear.

First, I should deal with the sonic issues. Made just before the advent of stereo but at a time when recording techniques were improving dramatically, these recordings were originally issued on Decca and Kenneth Wilkinson was amongst the engineers. They were remastered a few years ago by Simon Heyworth and are supposed to sound best when played through a single speaker. I imagine few people will be listening on high-specification equipment in that mode but they do sound very good for the period when played through two speakers. It would be surprising if the sound were preferable to most modern recordings and it is not. Huge advances in recording techniques were obvious enough by the time the Maazel made his cycle in Vienna for the same label a decade later. That sound seems quite a bit preferable in immediacy and clarity to Davis’s Boston recordings. Ashkenazy’s early digital cycle, again for Decca, represented a further major advance. More than twenty years after they were made, this may still be about as good as it gets.

Coming back to the Collins, there were advances in sound quality evident over the three-year period that these recordings were made. In a nutshell, the earliest recordings, the First and Second, require more tolerance than the rest of the symphonies. In addition to marginally less overall clarity, there are patches of pre-echo in some of the "silences" in these works and quite a bit of extraneous noise in the first movement of the Second Symphony which was presumably inaudible in the days of LP. In the last to be recorded, the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the sound is remarkably good. Overall, the sound rarely distracts the listener and conveys well internal orchestral balances and the power of these interpretations. The documentation is not luxurious and lacks precise recording dates (these are given in Rob Barnett’s review of the individual discs which is linked below) and individual movement timings. There are brief notes on the music and a reasonably substantial piece about Anthony Collins (1893-1963) and how he came to record these works.

Collins’ approach to Sibelius sounds fresh and free of performing traditions. Apparently he contacted the aging composer about metronome markings and received a reply that the conductor should have "liberty to get performance living". In this regard, Collins’s interpretations seem nearer to the spirit, if not always the letter, of the scores than most.

In the First Symphony Collins adopts notably fast tempi for the first movement Allegro energico and the third movement Scherzo. In doing so he generates tremendous excitement but also retains a good sense of atmosphere. The balances at opening of 3rd and 4th movements are notably different from my comparison recordings – he holds back the volume of the timpani and brass punctuations respectively and their later contributions are more telling for it. After hearing Collins’ performance a couple of times I went back to the others and really didn’t want to listen to Davis’s under-energised approach any more.

In the Second Symphony Collins is again pretty quick particularly in the outer movements. He holds together well the various strands of slow movement - although Ashkenazy is even finer here - and his scherzo is the most exciting. Interestingly, the score gives a tenuto at the end of the repeated note oboe theme in the trio but not for the shorter riposte on the cellos. Davis alone makes one in both places and it sounds wrong to me. Unsurprisingly, there is no wallowing from Collins in the big tunes of the finale but he achieves grandeur without lingering and the very end seems almost abrupt.

This performance of the Third Symphony is characterised by fast tempi in each of the movements. In terms of the comparisons being made, nobody does it faster in any of the movements although Maazel’s timing in the first movement is identical. Most striking - and possibly most justifiable - is Collins’ approach to the second movement: marked Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto. Near the beginning of the finale there seem to be some missing wispy violin passages starting at 0:34. These are marked in the Dover score and are easily audible in four other recorded versions I have available - the sets mentioned above plus Rattle’s CBSO recording of 1985 - but they certainly cannot be heard here. Their absence alters the character of the music at this point and, if anyone knows the reason for this, I should be interested to hear about it. Although Collins’ tempi for this work initially seemed hard to accept, they are starting to grow on me. Again, other versions can seem ponderous after hearing this and, particularly in the first two movements, a modern tendency to linger may not be advantageous.

In the Fourth Symphony Collins’ tempi are quite middle-of-road and this is a good all-round performance but, for me, not one that completely conveys the character of the music. I find Lorin Maazel’s reading does that best – it has a real feeling of vehemence in the right places. At the opposite end of the spectrum are Karajan and Davis with generally slow tempi - although the latter is quick in the finale - frequently lending an aura of barren desolation. Ashkenazy’s approach is the most similar to Collins and, as in the rest of his cycle, the sound bowls you over.

There is no need to say much about the Fifth Symphony which gets a splendid all-round performance. Tempi once again seem apposite and Collins is sensitive to the quasi allegretto element of the slow movement. This is a more seamless performance than the others under comparison here, of which Ashkenazy seems to be the nearest challenger. Davis is again slow in the first two movements. His recent LSO live performance seems preferable to me in every way aside from the added vocalise.

The Sixth Symphony is my personal favourite of the symphonies – a desert island piece that invariably leaves me spellbound. Collins certainly does that in a reading which captures well the unique atmosphere of this piece. As it should be, this is played pretty straight and the only controversial point is the fairly slow tempo for the second movement Allegretto moderato. In fact, Collins is even slower than Karajan but he sustains it well. I certainly prefer this version to Karajan which seems a bit mannered at times. Maazel sometimes sounds romantic in the first movement and is very quick in the second. His is the least successful of the comparison versions. Davis in Boston is probably the main rival to Collins here - preferable in this work to his LSO live version - and I also like Petri Sakari’s reading for Naxos with generally slow tempi. Overall, though, Collins’ version is as fine as any I have yet heard.

The Seventh Symphony is in some ways the most enigmatic and hardest to bring off. Here Collins convincingly presents the work in almost a single sweep but in some ways this seems understated, at least by the side of Maazel. His Vienna Philharmonic brass contributions are more telling and ultimately Maazel builds up much greater tension. Collins’ view is undoubtedly valid and in his hands the work seems to follow on logically from the Sixth but, if you take the view that Sibelius was here reaching for something very different, you may not find it completely satisfying.

I do not propose to say much about the fillers since they are unlikely to be a major factor in determining whether or not to purchase the discs. That is not to say they are not worth having – on the contrary, Pohjola’s Daughter and the relatively rare Nightride and Sunrise are given most worthwhile renditions. Unfortunately there are only five excerpts from Pelléas and Mélisande i.e. about the half the suite. Collins achieves great pathos in the Death of Mélisande and a complete version from him might even have rivalled Beecham. A further regret is that there is no Tapiola, presumably because he didn’t record it. However, the Karelia Overture is a nice opener for the first disc and could well be useful as it is often excluded from orchestral compilations that inevitably contain the suite.

Coming back to the symphonies, to summarise, Collins’ Sibelius generally tends to be quick, rugged and rendered with conviction. Received wisdom is that the first two symphonies owe a debt to Tchaikovsky, following which Sibelius went his own way. In these performances that debt was minimised as Collins eschews much of the potential Romanticism. His performances of the first two symphonies are particularly fine, as are the Fifth and Sixth. The Third is fascinating but controversially fast while the Fourth and the Seventh do not quite scale the heights. In both those works I clearly prefer Lorin Maazel’s readings and for them in particular, I shall be keeping his set along with Ashkenazy’s consistently satisfactory traversal. On rehearing it, the Davis cycle disappointed me considerably, particularly in the earlier works, perhaps as his approach often seemed to be the antithesis of Collins.

These discs not seem to be available separately at present but this probably matters little as most interested collectors are likely to want them all. Should they be issued separately with the same couplings, the second disc containing Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6 would be my recommended sampler.

Finally, I should add a few words about cost. A quick search of my favourite UK website for purchasing CDs found ten complete sets of the Sibelius symphonies. This one was jointly the most expensive along with Osmo Vänskä’s readings on BIS. Lorin Maazel’s set was the cheapest - containing only the symphonies - coming in at about half the cost of Collins. The situation is complicated by the variety of fillers and the range of three to eight discs involved in these various sets but this one is clearly not a bargain. Nevertheless it is sufficiently interesting to be worth anyone’s money. The fact that one can now supplement it with an excellent cycle in modern sound more cheaply – my suggestion would be Ashkenazy’s – is perhaps not as topsy-turvy as it might at first seem. Modern cycles are now "two-a-penny" but the one conducted by Collins was, and is still, in a class of its own.

Patrick C Waller


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Link to Rob Barnett’s previous review of individual discs:
Links to other articles on MusicWeb about Sibelius symphonies:



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