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JEAN SIBELIUS 1865-1957 Symphonies 1-7 conducted by Anthony Collins  London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins. BEULAH 1-4PD8  £34 for the set £9.99 individually


Full set
Disc 1 Disc 2
Disc 3 Disc 4

JEAN SIBELIUS 1865-1957 Symphonies 1-7 conducted by Anthony Collins
DISC 1 [59.44]
Symphonies: No. 1 (rec Feb 1952) and No. 7 (rec Feb 1954) Karelia Overture
DISC 2 [69.14]
Symphonies: No. 2 (rec May 1953) and No. 6 (rec June 1955)
DISC 3 [67.57]
Symphony No. 3 (rec May 1954); Pohjola's Daughter (rec May 1954); Pelleas and Melisande (Melisande; Pastorale; At the spinning wheel; Intermezzo; Death of Melisande) (rec Feb 1954); Nightride and Sunrise (rec June 1955)
DISC 4 [61.41]
Symphonies: No. 4 (rec Feb 1954) and No. 5 (rec Jan 1955)
MONO (4 discs) [258 min]
London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins. Rec Kingsway Hall, London, 1952-55. BEULAH 1-4PD8 The set is avaible at a special price also available separately at full price.

This set was the first domestically available intégrale of the Sibelius symphonies. The project's 'begetter' was Decca senior producer Victor Olof (who also enjoyed a fruitful recording relationship with Campoli). Olof had the foresight to select the then ex-pat Collins (1893-1963) who had been making a conducting and composition (film) career for himself in California.

This may well have seemed a very long-shot to most people. However it paid off handsomely. It was issued as the LP was well and truly 'finding its legs'. The 78 era held some fine performances including the Kajanus recordings, Schneevoigt in No 4 and Koussevitsky in No 7. The LP offered the compelling virtue of long playing sides apt to the large paragraphs in which Sibelius thought and 'spoke'.

Sibelius was in his final decade when the recordings were made (he died in 1958). His shivering and shimmering star seemed to have not merely set but sunk amid a fashionable mêlée of anti-melodic modernity or pallid neo-classicism. Against this background the choice of an unfashionable orchestra, an unknown conductor and repertoire that seemed destined for oblivion might have seemed unduly adventurous (would it have been permitted by the latter-day Decca?). In fact the choice turned out to be extremely perceptive - all the more so with some rather fine recordings (hiss levels are just perceptible and not at all distracting in this company) in the company's rightly vaunted FFRR sound.

The discs were issued to some acclaim but their shelf-life was limited by the onset of stereo. The original Decca LXTs held their place in the catalogue for some years but then disappeared and reappeared on LP in the late 50s on Decca's Ace of Clubs, the first budget-price LP series, re-emerging in the early 1970s on Decca's budget ECLIPSE label in, horror of horrors, electronic stereo. These issues were distinguished by 'wandery' channels, rather pallid transfers with much attentuated dynamic range and wintry sleeve photographs of National Trust UK locations. At 99p they must have been many newbies' introduction to the grand Finnish master.

Anthony Collins plays the tension and relaxation of these symphonies like a big game fisherman in Arctic 'waste of seas'. His interpretations are pliant and apt to respond warmly to the pitch and toss of these now largely familiar (numbers 3 and 6 are still rarely heard in the concert hall) scores.

The first symphony has string solos of restrained sweetness (4.38 in I) and bass drum thuds (7:13; I) which impress on any count. Coal-seam brass and moments of monumental drama (e.g the string cascade 2:57, IV) deck out this classic recording. The Lemminkainen-like 'stuttering' at 6:06 (IV) is notable reminding us of the Kullervo Symphony (and what a pity that Collins/Decca never recorded that work).

Symphony No. 7 is just a touch civilised though still conveying some rough-hewn qualities washed over by wild wintry torrents. Though taut it is not the equal of the 1960s EMI (now BMG) stereo Mravinsky.

The second symphony is interpreted and recorded in a way that catches its earthy mystery as well as its exhilaration. Not fully the equal of Barbirolli's RPO (Reader's Digest) stereo recording it still develops considerable whipcrack excitement. Listen to the first few minutes of the third movement and stop listening if you can. The gales in this work ply the nordic saplings double and reach across the years to Sibelius's final 'symphony' Tapiola. Those gleaming strings flash and shudder in the finale. There are so many highlights but listen particularly to the midnight satin strings at 9.20 (III). On the down-side I wondered about the unanimity of the trombones in the long finale. The work has many glories and bids high to be one of the enduring treasures in the annals of recorded sound.

No. 6 is very cleanly recorded and indomitably paced but did I notice concentration and tension slackening in first movement? Doubts however are soon swept away. The woodwind effervesce vivaciously throughout. For those who find symphonies 1 and 2 too overtly romantic try 3 and 6. The finale of No. 6 calls irresistibly across northern meadows in twilight and perpetual anticipation. That ringing inwardly-lit string tone is as satin is to tweed.

In the clean-limbed Third Symphony Collins puts across the controlled icy fever of the string writing and does so with great fervour. The work's almost classical restraint contrasts with its two predecessors. Some of the edges are softened as at 2.30 (first movement) in the strings. However in the finale the burred rolling horns (completely uncompromised by the passage of the years) register fervently in a rapid furious wave.

The sombrely glowing riches of Pohjola's Daughter provide an easeful bardic beauty conjured from bleak shadows and a rock-steady beat. The work is effectively a mini-symphony. Any film music fan exploring classical music would do well to listen to this before any of the Sibelius symphonies. It is simply one of the imaginative masterpieces of 20th century orchestral music.

There are five excerpts from the salon-like Pelléas and Mélisande. The flickering strings sound really splendid in the spinning wheel movement. It would not surprise me if they had inspired Bernard Herrmann in his score for The Magnificent Ambersons.

Nightride and Sunrise (1903) is all you might wish for with many attention-capturing features including the metallic clash of iron-shod hooves (00.21) and a fascinating ultra-fast beat at 3.36. The woodwind interventions are explosive. The sunrise looks forward to Nielsen's own Mediterranean sunrise: the Helios overture of six years later. Strange to recall that the long-sustained underpinning rhythm was suggested by the rail-patter of a train journey.

No. 4 is suitable gravelly and cool (cold even) but in this recording it could have done with more spotlighting of solos. The cello in the first movement seemed recessed though in fact I am sure the balance is quite naturalistic. Nevertheless the oboe in the second movement enjoys some winning prominence in the aural landscape. Things do not go so flowingly in the final movement though the sound is again wonderful. Listen to the bells at 00.20. This is not the equal of the Colin Davis version (Philips).

No. 5 is an epic symphony, not in duration (less than 30 mins in Collins' hands), but in spirit. A lively muscularity blends the lighter emotions (sometimes the lighter Sibelius seems to peak through the thicket) with threatening and unpredictable elemental forces. Collins does not strive to darken this symphony but very little of its natural power escapes his gimlet eyes. The ticking strings accompanying the bell-theme on the woodwind (4.40) in the finale are simply glorious and the sound quality is out of Ken Wilkinson's top-drawer. The final hammer-chords are securely and satisfyingly captured.

All the above tapes were recorded at the fabled Kingsway Hall, recently (1999) demolished. What a pity that experimental stereo tapes were not made in parallel with the mono ones!

The covers of all four discs are drawn, as with the rest of the Beulah catalogue, from the London Transport Museum. Vols 3 and 4 feature strikingly naturalistic landscapes (both Epping Forest) by Walter Spradbery while the other two CDs use paintings by Dame Laura Knight (and the poster art of Clair Leighton (The Country Now).

The slip-case for all 4 discs uses a telling montage of a towsle-pated Sibelius and a scene of snow and northern pines, a ghostly sun hung low and a single low-flying wildfowl.

The Beulah discs were first issued in 1994 and have been available as an economically priced set for some years now. Do explore these discs. They need no apologies. Classic Sibelius tellingly put across.


Rob Barnett

PS: Do not forget the Beulah Popular Sibelius collection (sourced from EMI tapes of Collins and the RPO) as an 'anhang' to this fine anthology.

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