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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Pohjola's Daughter (1906) [12.23]
The Maidens with the Roses (1909) [3.06]
Tapiola (1923) [17.19]
Symphony No. 7 (1924) [21.20]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

The Last Spring [4.52]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitsky (7)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitsky
Rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 6 May 1936 (Pohjola); 29 Dec 1936 (Maidens); 7-8 Nov 1939 (Tapiola), 20 Mar 1940 (Grieg); Queen's Hall, London, 15 May 1933. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110168 [59.00]

 

With its companion (8.110170, 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.

Tapiola, the 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 of atmosphere.

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.

Rob Barnett

 



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