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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Pohjola’s Daughter. Symphonic Fantasy, Op. 49* [12’23"]
The Maiden with the Roses (No. 3 from Swanwhite, Op. 54)** [3’06"]
Tapiola, Op. 112*** [17’19"]
Symphony No 7 in C major, Op. 105**** [21’20"]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

The Last Spring (Elegiac Melodies, Op.34, No.2)***** [4’52"]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky;
****BBC Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. Symphony Hall Boston except **** ‘live’, Queen’s Hall, London; *6 May 1936;**29 December 1936; ***7-8 November 1939; ****15 May 1933; *****20 March 1940. ADD
NAXOS 8.110168 [59’00"]
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These recordings are justly famous and demonstrate vividly why Serge Koussevitzky was so celebrated as an interpreter of Sibelius. Without exception, the performances display tremendous interpretative grip and control over the orchestra. There’s also a palpable sense of atmosphere. The transfers, by Mark Obert-Thorn, have been expertly done but, inevitably, the sound is somewhat spare. This rather suits the music.

In some ways the performance of the Seventh Symphony is the most remarkable for it was given with an orchestra with which the conductor was not familiar and, of course, it was ‘live’, before an audience. Given that the performance captured here took place over 71 years ago the amount of detail that is reported, such as quiet timpani playing, is quite remarkable. I have this in another transfer, by EMI in their "Art of Conducting" series [7243 5 65918 2 0]. That version seems to me to have just a degree more punch and presence but the difference is very marginal. In a note Mr. Obert-Thorn refers to "many restoration challenges" with this recording. All I can say is that his expert work gives us as good an impression as we could reasonably expect of Koussevitzky’s performance and what Obert-Thorn justly refers to as the "white-hot momentum" he could generate.

There’s tremendous concentration and intensity in the opening adagio section. Later I was particularly struck by the extraordinary louring power of the string figures that underpin the second of the trombone solos (track 5, 3’00"- 4’04"). This is a baleful passage and it’s tellingly done here. Not all is dark power, however. There’s a fine lightness of touch at the start of the Allegro molto moderato (track 6). The concluding few minutes, including the last trombone solo (track 7, from 1’00") are mightily impressive. Despite the sonic limitations the granite majesty of Koussevitzky’s vision of the score is readily apparent. It’s a tremendous performance and its reputation amongst collectors as a classic Sibelius reading is amply justified.

The recording of Tapiola is of similar stature. Annotator Ian Julier describes Koussevitzky’s account as "possessed of an elemental power and unity" and I wouldn’t dissent. The reading is highly charged from start to finish and the cold, dark pine forests of Scandinavia are brilliantly suggested. The interpretation has a rugged strength and it fairly crackles with tension. The storm (track 3, from 13’55") is awesome (in the true sense of the word); you can almost hear the arctic wind shrieking as the Boston players articulate the music superbly. At the end the Nordic landscape settles back into a timeless calm.

Pohjola’s Daughter is no less successful. The performance has the same virtues and standards of interpretation and performance. After a brooding start great energy is released and sustained. I found the performance tremendously exciting though superbly controlled on a tight rein. There’s real fire in the belly here. The excitement is particularly great in the passage between 6’30" and 9’20" (track 1), especially from 8’09". The quiet ending (from 10’56") is most sensitively handled, the Bostonians delivering haunting playing that is pregnant with atmosphere.

The sound on these Boston recordings is, inevitably, better than is the case with the recording of the symphony for these performances were set down under studio conditions.

The other two, shorter pieces are well played and it’s interesting to hear Koussevitzky in somewhat lighter fare. Both items benefit from sensitive phrasing and playing.

This is a CD that contains some superb music making. The collection represents great value for money and is self-recommending.

John Quinn

see also review by Rob Barnett

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