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Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra: Great Recordings from the Archives.
Volume 1:
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
IMG ARTISTS RSPO1000-2
[eight discs]

Johann Sebastian BACH (1865-1750)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565a (arr. Stokowski) [9’42]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)

Violin Concerto, ‘To the memory of an angelb (1935) [25’29]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Vier letzte Liederc (1948) [20’00]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolded - Prelude to Act 1; Liebestod.
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Symphony No. 39 in E flat, K543e (1788) [24’21].
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1828)

Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93f (1812) [25’46]. Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72bf (1806) [15’03].
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Chant du rossignolg (1919) [12’54].
bLouis Krasner (violin); cSena Jurinac (soprano); Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/aLeopold Stokowski, bcFritz Busch, dArturo Toscanini, eBruno Walter, fWilhelm Furtwängler; gVictor de Sabata.
Rec. aMay 25th, 1939, bApril 20th, 1938, cMay 2nd, 1951, dDecember 2nd, 1934, eSeptember 8th, 1950, fNovember 13th, 1948, gSeptember 24th, 1947.
Volume 2:
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98a (1885) [39’02].
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Siegfried-Idyllb (1870) [17’47].
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49c (1906) [12’42]
Goiacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

Guillaume Tell (1829) - Overtured [11’14].
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64e (1888) [43’49].
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9f (1906) [23’37].
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/aOtto Klemperer, bHans Schmidt-Isserstedt, cTor Mann, dCarlo Maria Giulini, eFerenc Fricsay, fJascha Horenstein.
Rec. aApril 16th, 1958, bMay 22nd, 1963, cApril 27th, 1958, dApril 1st, 1960, eMarch 6th, 1957, fDecember 7th, 1967.
Volume 3:
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)

Oberon - Overturea (1826) [9’57].
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56ab (1873) [18’18].
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)

Antiche danze ed arie - Suite No. 1, II-IVc (1917) [13’48].
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Requiem, Op. 48d (1888) [36’32].
Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Op. 100e (1944) [40’23].
Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)

En skärgårdssägen (Legend of the Skerries), Op. 20f (1904) [18’54].
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Slavonic Dances, Op. 46/B83 (1878) - Nos. 1, 3 & 8g [13’20].
dGunilla af Malmborg (soprano); dRolf Leandersson (baritone); dÅke Levén (organ); dMusikaliska Sällskapet Choir; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/aJosef Krips, bConstantin Silvestri, cPierre Monteux, dRafael Kubelík
Rec. aApril 5th, 1973, bMarch 14th, 1962, cOctober 26th, 1961,
Volume 4:
Richard STRAUSS (0864-1949)

Don Juan, Op. 20a (1888) [16’56]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)

Symphony No. 7 in Eb (1881-83) [60’21].
Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)

Gustave III (1833) - Overturec [7’23].
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphony No. 6 in D, Op. 60/B112d (1880) [41’50].
Franz BERWALD (1796-1868)

Symphony No. 3 in C, ‘Sinfonie singulièree (1845) [27’55].
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/aSixten Ehrling, bRudolf Kempe, cGennadi Rozhdestvensky, dAntal Dorati, eIgor Markevitch.
Rec. aJune 10th, 1964, bApril 9th, 1975, cMay 8th, 1978, dDecember 7th, 1973, eSeptember 13th, 1978.

 

Volume 1: RSPO1001/2.

It is Stokowski that gets proceedings off in typically flamboyant style. His arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565 is a great splodge of colour and largesse. The recording, which dates from 1939, is taken at quite a high level. The orchestration makes us aware of different sections of the orchestra as contrasted organ stops. It will probably not come as any surprise that contrasts are absolutely massive. This remains a fascinating take on the Bach, less a product of its time than a reflection of Stokowski himself. There is a ‘fluttering’ extraneous sound from around 5’28 to 5’38 which some may find distracting although wait until you hear the Toscanini/Wagner, of which more below. Stokowski elicits an appropriately robust response from the Scandinavians.

The move to the Berg Violin Concerto is a cosmic leap to a different universe. Despite the fact this is an earlier (April 1938) recording, the quality is substantially better. What little hiss there is, is not distracting. And the presence of Louis Krasner guarantees its historic status. Krasner commissioned the work and had premiered it in 1936 in Barcelona. One can certainly experience the sweetness of Krasner’s tone and also his strength; this concerto demands almost a surfeit of both. Krasner’s harmonics at around 8’50 are a thing of wonder - pure of tone, spot-on tuning. A pity the ‘lullaby’ theme at around 9’35 is too distanced.

Just a touch louder, and the ‘scream’ that opens the second part of the concerto would have done the trick. Nevertheless, the cadenza is gripping and there is a tremendous sense of calm around the chorale.

As if one top-flight soloist were not enough, the Berg is immediately followed by Sena Jurinac’s Four Last Songs (Strauss). Again, a recording anomaly - here the date of recording is substantially later - 1951 - yet Jurinac is too distanced. She provides a considered, involving interpretation, varying her tone carefully. She begins the first song with a creamy sound, adding an edge for the second verse. Fritz Busch handles the orchestra here, as in the other songs, with consummate mastery; try the orchestral introduction to the third song, ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, where the texture is light, with every strand clearly audible. A shame Jurinac is on the literal side for ‘September’. Special mention should go to the solo violin in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. Whoever it was was in possession of an unending bow. But, alas, the horn solo is marred by an aberration (a clumsy slur) right at the end. By the time the fourth song arrives, Jurinac is beginning to sound all the same - the hypnotic coda almost rescues a though-provoking account.

Finally for the first disc, a December 1934 Toscanini Tristan Prelude and (orchestra-only) Liebestod. And here the recording quality really does sound as if we are travelling back to the very beginning of time. The source is damaged and there is tremendous swish that is several times louder than anything the orchestra does. At 1’19 the swish is replaced by a ‘whooshing’ sound. The performance itself is actually lyrically expansive, perhaps surprisingly so, yet as the Prelude moves on so does Toscanini, steam-rollering his way through, ruining the tensile build-up. The sound threatens enjoyment again at the climax; it simply cannot cope. The beginning of the ‘Liebestod’ is almost inaudible underneath the extraneous noise. Despite this, the climax still works.

The second disc (each volume is a twofer) is on more classical ground with Mozart juxtaposed with Beethoven, finishing off with some Stravinsky.

Firstly, Bruno Walter’s Mozart needs no introduction. Here it is in all its big-boned, resplendent glory, in a 39th Symphony dating from 1950. The sound is rounded, helping the first movement’s slow introduction to give off a sense of space. The Allegro really is fast, in stark contrast, but includes period mannerisms such as occasional swoops and scoops from the strings and a few gear-changes. Yet overall it is a remarkable balance of the civil and the robust. It is a pity the sound – congested mid, muddy and weak bass - means that detail is lost. The slow movement again speaks of its epoch. Indulgent, yes, but taken on its own terms one can hear in every note Walter’s love of this music. The stomping Menuetto does not hang about. Neither doe the Trio, but this latter is imbued with the spirit of the dance. It is the orchestra that is not up to Walter’s demands for the finale; it is easy to imagine what the VPO would make of it! The performance has spirit, but in the end the limitations of the orchestra take away outright enthusiasm.

Over to the mighty Furtwängler for two Beethoven items, the Eighth Symphony and Leonore 3. Although recorded only two years earlier, the Eighth is recessed. Despite this the opening manages to retain an imposing strength of purpose. As always with this conductor, slowings of tempo always have a point in the higher scheme of things. Some of the slower passages have a positively Wagnerian slant to them; not what one easily associates with this particular symphony. The chords towards the very end of the movement (around 7’34) emerge as hammer-blows!

The naughty, cheeky aspect of the second movement is to the fore, complementing the heavy beginning of the third. This latter really does sound like heavy machinery slowly heaving itself into some sort of movement; similarly Furtwängler slows down before the Trio which is dominated by some vibrato-ed horns. Typical for this conductor, he refused to compromise on the tempo for the finale. Undeniably exciting though it is, the Stockholm strings do struggle.

Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol received its first performance in the Stockholm Concert Hall in this very performance, conducted by Victor de Sabata; that conductor’s only guest appearance with the Stockholm orchestra. It is a colourfully-imagined performance, with the orchestra clearly revelling in the sometimes acerbic language and sometimes luxuriating in the lusher passages.

Volume 2: RSPO1003/4.

Otto Klemperer’s Brahms is always welcome - expansive, in fact with a sense of the massive about it, it breathes a very identifiable Germanic seriousness of intent. Klemperer, on the strength of this recording, inspired the RSPO to great things and this version in fact makes an interesting complement to his Philharmonia version on HMV/EMI CDM5 67031-2. There is a further live Brahms 4 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, this time from 1957, on Orfeo d’Or C201-891D, which unfortunately I have not had access to. The tenuto, perhaps over-long, on the very first note of the Stockholm account is indicative of the time-stretched, autumnal aspect of this reading. The problem is that the RSPO is not the Philharmonia, to state the obvious, so that the upper strings are not entirely at home in the difficult, high-lying lines Brahms requires. This is however balanced by the sense of inexorable onward movement Klemperer creates. The sound detracts, too; it definitely sounds pre-1958. At levels above forte, the whole becomes brash and un-Brahmsian. Perhaps this is not entirely inappropriate to the gritty and dramatic climax around 10’40.

The slow movement flows, yet is not really relaxed. The boldness of the initial horn calls is a statement of intent Klemperer doggedly sticks to. Some textures glow, while Klemperer becomes grimly determined towards the end. His reading of this movement is multi-hued - a pity the more autumnal passages do not have an orchestra that can do them full credit.

There is no denying the excitement of the third movement, where Klemperer is not above the occasional ‘push’ to make a point; ensemble could have been tighter, too. Nevertheless, one gets swept away in the liveness of the occasion.

Perhaps Klemperer had been saving his heaviness for the finale. This appears as a great leviathan of an entity. Orchestral shortcomings - muffed trombone entries, some scrappy strings - suddenly seem much less important. The trombones around 6’46 make a tremendous impression, almost like a call of Fate. Well worth hearing, despite its obvious blemishes.

Perhaps Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt is forever to be known as a dependable, read ‘boring’, conductor and indeed his hack-through of Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll from May 1963 attests to a lack of reflective ability. A not entirely in-tune solo violin adds discomfort and detracts from Schmidt-Isserstedt’s choice of tempo - neither too indulgent, nor too fast. A pity, then, that the oboe’s entry at 4’48 is rather literal. It can and should appear as a shaft of light. An undeniably exhilarating climax around ten minutes in leads to passages (around 15’) that clearly and atmospherically invoke nature. The close is calm and peaceful.

Tor Mann’s Sibelius reminds us that this orchestra is at its best on home turf in a dark Pohjola’s Daughter that exudes a strong sense of Sibelian logic. Interestingly, some parts of this short work (12’42) emerge as a Scandic ‘Forest Murmurs’, an intriguing effect coming immediately after the Siegfried-Idyll. A touch of hysteria (around 7’40) is particularly effective. A highlight.

The presence of Carlo Maria Giulini means a small addition to this conductor’s discography, away from his starrier orchestras. Giulini’s softly-softly approach seems to have inspired the Stockholm orchestra’s principal cellist to great things, for the long introductory solos are magnificently expressive. Similarly on top form, the trombones excel themselves; and brace yourself for the famous bit. Giulini sprints through it! A cor anglais solo that threatens to veer out of control is the only blot on the landscape.

Fricsay’s Tchaikovsky is magnificent. Again, he shows just what a fine conductor can do with this orchestra, for the first movement is quixotic, positively chameleon-like in its propensity for tracking the music’s mood changes. The dark side of Tchaikovsky is very much to the fore here, with fortes and fortissimi that blaze with incendiary anger. The close of this movement is almost pitch black.

Contrasts abound again in the slow movement. Impassioned string swellings are here much more than an introductory gesture to the (here fairly played) horn solo, but act as an indicator that the clouds of the first movement have not budged an inch. The horn’s lyricism therefore takes on the mantle of pleading: violent swellings later in the movement tell us this is in vain.

The third movement moves towards happier territory, with a suave beginning; presumably the most rehearsed part of the movement, as things become lumpier later. Fricsay beings us back to black for the finale, a movement with a permanent rain-cloud over its head. A huge pause (more than a comma, certainly) before the coda is strange; even stranger is the way the coda resembles the coda to the last movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth in its empty bombast.

This remains a must-hear in many ways, not least for being far more than a run-through.

Schoenberg was fairly obviously new territory to the Swedes in 1967. Just what happens at the opening of the First Chamber Symphony? Tuning is approximate as are notes, come to that, textures chaotic and these traits are not just restricted to the opening. Yet there is an undeniable excitement that comes through - or is it just panic? Lack of understanding of harmonies and their direction make this a rather meandering account, leading to an almighty scramble at the end. It is disturbing to listen to and a shrill recording doesn’t help.

 

Volume 3: RSPO1005/6.

It was the thought of Rafael Kubelík’s Fauré Requiem that ignited my curiosity about this volume, with evidently local soloists. Right from the start, this is no light, Rutter-like narcissistic stroll. Rather, it is meditation on death itself. The sheer heft of the opening octaves and the warm, large choir immediately imply that Kubelík is tending towards the mystic. The danger is that this can degenerate into turgidity, which it does move towards later in the movement.

The second movement (Offertoire) is reverential but not too slow, and the soloist Rolf Leandersson’s light voice fits the music well. Kubelík finds shadows in the movement’s close (fittingly for his conception).

Perils of live performance beset the Sanctus, with a hesitant entry by the ladies of the chorus; the Hosanna is similarly low-voltage. Gunilla af Malmborg gives a touching Pie Jesu although there is naturally more vibrato than a boy would use. Leandersson’s Libera me is lyric rather than dramatic and is accompanied by remarkably restrained pizzicati. This movement is in fact spoiled by some distortion at the choral statement of the words ‘dum veneris’. Horns blare rather than call authoritatively. A hyper-delicate ‘In Paradisum’ completes the work - the choir is not entirely up to it, admittedly, not exactly together; neither is the entry of the full choir at the word ‘Jerusalem’ the moment of magic it can be. Perhaps the audience felt this too, for the applause begins immediately, with no breathing space to absorb Fauré’s magic. Still, this remains an important document.

Josef Krips conducting, very lovingly, Weber’s Oberon Overture gets this particular volume off to a good start. The string parts are lovingly shaded and with the staccato wind comments easily evoke a Midsummer Night’s Dream-like atmosphere. The Allegro begins scrappily, though, and Krips allows it to sag towards the end. A disappointing end to an Oberon that began in the most promising fashion.

The thought of Constantin Silvestri conducting the Brahms Haydn Variations is an appealing one and indeed, each variation is carefully and individually characterised, from hunting horns through to lilting 6/8 rhythms. There is certainly lots of audible page-turning before the finale, which itself breathes an easy contentment. Monteux’s 1961 realisation of excerpts from Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances brings delight, from the dignified, to the gentile and on to the sparkling.

The major offering of the second disc of this volume is Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The conductor is Paul Kletzki. Kletzki’s recordings usually bring something special and indeed his interpretation transcends any orchestral weaknesses that may be encountered; high strings, for example. This 1968 performance has a dark, determined aspect and a sure command of the work’s structure particularly in the interpretatively tough first movement. This is the RSPO on inspired form. It is so obvious that they just go for it, providing acidic wind in the second movement and real depth in the third where the long lines carry much tenderness. The finale is a similar triumph in the orchestra’s ability to manage Prokofiev’s shifts and juxtapositions. Another highlight. This was to be Kletzki’s last visit to the RSPO.

The danger was that the Prokofiev would completely overshadow the Alfvén. Yet the latter piece emerges as a warm, skilful work.

Herbert Blomstedt gives Alfvén’s long, lazy lines all the time they require. A lot of the time, this twenty-minute work (usually translated as ‘Legend of the Skerries’) is warmly lyrical and the orchestra is obviously at home here. Blomstedt understands that there is drama here, too, and underscored the whole with this. Alfvén’s ability to invoke pictures is astonishing, and this is a gripping account.

It would be hard to top István Kertész in Dvořák as an ‘encore’, and that is what we get - three fizzing Slavonic Dances. Not home turf for the orchestra, naturally, yet woodwind manage to trip along nicely and rhythms are finely honed and border on the infectious.

Volume 4 (RSPO1007/8):

The penultimate disc (and the first disc of the final volume) of this mega-box is special. There are only two works. Don Juan, conducted by Sixten Ehrling, comes across in good, spacious sound. The solo violinist has a sweet tone that is most appealing; the horns are swaggeringly heroic. To follow, Bruckner’s magnificent Seventh under Ehrling. Musicality is at the forefront right from the opening, intense and with the arpeggio well-moulded. There is a sense of space, almost of flexing of muscles that works particularly well. The intensity remains in the flowing slow movement, dominated by strings displaying real depth. There is no cymbal crash, but the climax is a great arrival point nonetheless; the third movement is dynamic, but always controlled. Perhaps it is only the finale that contains a surprise, in its almost frenetic pace. Nevertheless this is an account to return to.

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky gets the final disc off to a fascinating start with Auber’s Overture to Gustave III. Light and frothy, full of energy, it is a lovely way to spend seven minutes.

Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony is given impassioned advocacy under Antal Dorati, who inspires the orchestra both individually, great wind solos in the first movement; piping and pastoral in the finale, and collectively, terrific spirit and verve to the third movement. The close is jubilant and life-affirming.

The final item of the entire box returns us to RSPO’s home turf: Berwald’s Third Symphony. It remains a mystery why we do not hear more of this composer in the UK. The RSPO were indeed privileged to have been under the baton of Igor Markevitch on this occasion. From the shifting, mysterious opening, a Nature evocation if ever there was one, to the joyous finale, this is a magnificent achievement. Despite small caveats, for example a shift in recording perspective around two minutes in to the first movement and some scrappy, high strings, this remains a thoroughly enjoyable way to close the set.

There is a huge amount of fascinating listening here. There are top conductors (Giulini, Kempe, Toscanini, Furtwängler, de Sabata, Walter ...) working with, and inspiring, an orchestra that is obviously devoted to its craft. No-one investing in this set will be disappointed. Quite the reverse.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

 



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