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Jan SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47, original 1903/4 version and final 1905 version
Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Recording first published 1991 (date and location not given)
BIS-CD-300500 [75:00]

The Sibelius family has taken a very protective attitude towards the composer’s papers; unnecessarily so considering that any number of youthful indiscretions, false starts and the like could not detract an iota from the mighty symphonies and the best of his other works. Only very gradually have the archives been opened up. It had long been known that the Violin Concerto (in common with a few other works, most notably the Fifth Symphony) was first presented in a version very different from the final one, but only in about 1990 was permission given for this, and only this, recording of it. Since it is to be the only recording, it would have been terrible if it had not been a good one. Fortunately, the performance of the final version is of such quality as to set our minds at rest. At the outset I wondered if there was going to be too much portamento, but this is countered by the silvery purity of Kavakos’s tone, which soars rapturously, passionately and meditatively as required above Vänskä’s dark-hued orchestra. My one small reservation is that the finale, broadly taken, could have greater impetus. Oddly enough, this matters less in the performance of the first version where the major-key material which Sibelius later expunged in itself lessens the impetus of the music. All the same, this is a version to rank with the best.

It is a sobering thought that a professor of composition, if asked to comment on the concerto in its original form, would probably have told Sibelius to leave the second movement as it is (changes are minimal) and prune the third (as was done), but throw out the first and start again. To a lesser mortal, this first movement really does seem too much of a ragbag of ideas to stand any chance of being put in order. It is a most disconcerting listening experience. It begins much as we know it, but before long we are in a foreign territory entirely, and a strange one at that. It is not only a question of there being many episodes based on material unknown to us (and one of the orchestral episodes seems remarkably banal); stranger still is when themes which know where they are going in the final version sound here to be lost or to be leading in another direction. The glorious second subject (as we now know it) is present but only has a minor place in the proceedings. It is quite extraordinary to reflect that only a year later Sibelius was to develop this into the taut piece we know. If you love Sibelius you will need to have this for the insight it offers into his thought processes.

The recording is a wide-ranging one; too much so in my opinion. With the volume at a normal level I only realised the music had started when the violin entered, so I turned the volume up and started again. Yet some of the brass climaxes are excessively powerful even with the volume back down to normal and I had difficulty in finding a setting which could be maintained without adjustment from beginning to end. The sound in itself is magnificently truthful.

Christopher Howell



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