> Jean Sibelius - Symphony No.1 4 [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 [35.48]
Symphony No. 4 [31.59]
Lemminkainen's Return [5.27]
Berceuse from The Tempest [2.37]
Philadelphia Orchestra
cond: Eugene Ormandy (1; Return); Leopold Stokowski (4; Berceuse)
rec 25 Oct 1941 (Sym 1); 20 Oct 1940 (Return); 15 Jan 1936 (Berceuse); 23 Apr 1932 (Sym 4) ADD mono - transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn
BIDDULPH WHL062 [76.58]


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Both Ormandy and Stokowski are doughty Sibelians and both had long tenures in Philadelphia. Stokowski held the chief conductorship until handing over to Ormandy. Stokowski gave the Cincinnati premieres of Sibelius's first two symphonies in 1910 and 1912 and conducted the US premieres of Symphonies 5 (in October 1921) and 6 and 7 (both in April 1926). Ormandy recorded symphonies 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7 (the disdain for symphonies 3 and 6 by so many conductors seems inexplicable to me) with Columbia during the period 1943 to 1968 and you can still hear his 2 and 7 on a Sony Essential Classics on SBK 53 509. He recorded the Second, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies again while with RCA post-1968. In 1976 Stokowski also returned to the recording studio; this time in London with the National Philharmonic for the Sibelius First Symphony. That recording can still be heard on a just deleted Sony Essential Classics double complete with Thomas Schippers' Sibelius Second and the Francescatti version of the Violin Concerto.

Ormandy was returning to Sibelius 1 for the recording that now surfaces on this Biddulph recording. In 1935 he had recorded the work with the Minneapolis Symphony. I hope to hear that recording soon (recorded on a Lys Dante - the same label that also has Nikolai Anosov's USSRSO recording from the early fifties). Going by Edward Johnson's notes (which I confess to having plundered) the Philly version is superior to the Minneapolis being with a noticeably better orchestra. Overall the Philadelphia is tauter taking only eight 78 sides rather than the ten for Minneapolis. This version is given an often relaxed performance but in a way that never leaves us in doubt that this is a world class, probably supreme, orchestra. They have invincible unanimity of attack in the first movement matched by a guileless unglamorous modesty at the end of the andante. As an interpretation this is not the match for Barbirolli's stereo First recorded as part of the complete Barbirolli Sibelius on EMI. The Phildelphians are on much better form than the 1960s Hallé probably ever were but this version is in the top quartile and Sibelians need to hear it.

Ormandy's speed in the Lemminkainen 's Return the orchestra holds onto articulation by the skin of their gritted teeth and the work of strings and brass is phenomenal. This is easily the superior of the Beecham Return and is extremely, in fact breathlessly, exciting. To get a handle on the orchestra's whip-crack precision and character listen to the opening note which goes with 'whump' of a petrol aerosol ignition.

This has made me all the keener to hear Ormandy in his 1950s monos of symphonies 4 and 5, not to mention his much later 1970s RCAs of the same two symphonies (on a couple of RCA Navigator CDs). I also have high hopes of encountering the 1950s Ormandy Lemminkainen Legends and being able to contrast these with his late 1970s EMI recording.

The Stokowski Berceuse has a swan-ripe lip-luscious velour to the starry strings such that I thought of the 1965 Mravinsky Swan of Tuonela with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Great Sibelius playing then and be warned that it will spoil you for most other recordings. Stokowski breathes such significance and meaning into this miniature and ladles on the personality far more than he does in the Fourth Symphony.

As is much more evident from Pearl's unvarnished reproduction of recordings of the Scriabin Prometheus and Poem of Ecstasy the string section of the Philadelphia was decimated in the 1930s. Stokowski, ever the technical opportunist, compensated rather well in the Fourth Symphony sessions by placing the microphones that much closer to the strings. This has done its work. RCA Victor executives must however have gone to the recording sessions with heads fatalistically bowed when Stokowski insisted on the Fourth Symphony - the toughest and least instantly alluring of the seven. He had already affronted Philadelphia's subscription series dowagers by not only inflicting on them the Fourth but repeating it at the same concert at which it was hissed.

It is extraordinary to think that this was the first Sibelius symphony to be recorded in the USA and the world premiere recording of the Fourth. The set was never issued on 78 outside the USA.

Portamento and ripe-bursting woodwind tone make the allegro molto vivace (II) as striking sounding as the strings in the Tempest - Berceuse and there are parallels between the two works. By the way in the third movement (tempo largo) at 3.58 and 4.10 the woodwind evince some momentary damage or defect to the master. Stokowski takes things at a pretty broad tempo largo. The brooding and trance-like end of the tempo largo carries over into the long final allegro. The panoramic effect is low-key unglamorised and very understated. It is as if Stokowski, defying the image-makers, bows discreetly into the background, keeping the music to the fore without apologies and without spotlight. This recording is evidence of the conductor's humility rather than his showmanship.

Good thorough, extensive English-only notes by Edward Johnson - much fuller than Malcolm Walker's for WHL 055. Both this disc and WHL 055 (Beecham Symphony No. 2, Tapiola etc) were issued in 1998.

Rob Barnett


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