With its companion
symphonies 2 and 5) this presents all
Koussevitsky's commercial recordings
of Sibelius excepting only the 1950
re-recording of the second symphony.
The gentle fillers come in the form
of the subtly sweetened Grieg and the
restrained Maiden with the Roses
(the latter from the stage music
for Strindberg's Swanwhite).
They are delightful - a pity though
that the Maidens (tr. 2) end
as if in mid-breath.
The Pohjola's Daughter
is splendidly fantastic. The stabbing
Bostonian violins at 7.30 are memorable
along with much else. This shares the
incandescence of the Boston Tapiola
and the live Seventh with the BBCSO.
In the round this is no competition
for modern recordings such as Horst
Stein's on Decca and, going back to
the 1950s, Boult's on Omega Classics.
Seventh Symphony and The Tempest
stand as forbidding presences of
the 1920s. Tapiola has none of
the narrative incident of Pohjola's
Daughter. Indeed this work has a
sombre sphinx-like gaze staring down
the listener. Sibelius has abandoned
the beguilement and sensuality of Lemminkainen
and instead leaves us with Tapio in
absorbed possession of the cold forests.
There is no sense here of Swinburnian
revels (Bax's Spring Fire) or
summer's ecstasy (Delius or Ludolf Nielsen's
Forest walk). This is nature's
realm but not in any cheery Dvořákian
sense. Here the woods are uncaring of
human spectators or travellers a sense
also felt in the Fourth Symphony. This
distancing is also close to the indomitable
and conscience-less Egdon
Heath (Holst). Koussevitsky’s is
a possessed performance as you will
instantly hear if you sample the needle-piercing
gale of sound at 14.51 onwards. Just
as impressive is the sustaining of prickly
concentration through the gentle closing
gestures of the symphony. Speaking of
which, this is a doughty version of
Sibelius 7. While it does not trounce
the Mravinsky (BMG Melodiya) or the
Ormandy/Philadelphia it has a massive
powerful humming momentum and coherence.
Mravinsky convinces you that he speaks
with the grave primeval strength - a
bardic enchanter from prehistory. Ormandy
convinces with powerhouse concentration
and the world's Rolls-Royce of an orchestra.
Oramo (Erato) again picks up on the
power and furious dynamism of the work.
Towards the end of the adagio Koussevitsky
picks up on the concentrated deliberation
of the music preparing the ground for
his hieratic trombone (sadly affected
by the passage of time) at 5.54 in tr.4.
The BBC Orchestra's trombone sounds
feeble only by comparison with more
recent recordings. Of course his tone
is less warbly than his Leningrad counterpart
from thirty years later. The strings
rasp and roar in unanimity at the start
of the allegro molto moderato.
I am not so sure that this deserves
all the ikonic status it has been accorded
over the years but it certainly merits
its own place among the best of Sibelius
7 recordings. The epic stride Koussevitsky
builds in the final five minutes is
impressive by anyone’s standards.
The producer and audio
restoration engineer is Mark Obert-Thorn
so it is to him that we owe the finely
successful judgements balancing the
Scylla of 'cleansing' against the Charybdis
To end the disc with
The Last Spring was an inspired
Beechamite choice sending the listener
out of the listening session with something
sweetly smooth and calming.