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  Classical Editor: Rob Barnett  
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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony no. 1 in E minor, op. 39 [34:17], Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 43 [42:07]
Leopold Stokowski conducts his Symphony Orchestra (no. 1), the NBC Symphony Orchestra (no. 2)
Recorded in New York on 11th and 13th July 1950 (no. 1), 15th, 16th and 23rd September (no. 2)
CALA CACD0541 [76:25]


I’m so overwhelmed I don’t know how to write about this! So let me put down a few notes about some of the many aspects of these performances that so gripped me.

Mastery of sound. Both recordings are close-miked (at Stokowski’s wish) and in no. 1 in particular he seems to want us to hear that these are modern works, with no lapses into tired romantic sounds or facile string cushions. He takes us into an intense world of nature where terrifying storms may brew up at a moment’s notice and where the sudden hushes are more ominous still. He also leads us into a world which may usually seem dormant under its snowy mantle, but is actually teeming with life as any naturalist will tell you. Hear what he finds under the surface of the strangely unsettling trio to the scherzo of no. 1.

Feeling of organic growth. Stokowski makes each idea grow out of the one before. Listen to the jagged opening of the finale of no. 1, then out of this comes a hushed chord for two flutes that seems to have risen out of that jagged passage. Then more build-up that tumbles into the unison string passage (played with devastating virtuosity), after which the following chorale again seems to have been already there, implicit in the music that went before. In theory Stokowski’s slowing at the end of the exposition of the first movement of no. 2 is wrong, but what utter magic as the oboe sounds out of the silence and the music proves not to have stopped after all.

Intellectual command. This may surprise since Stokowski is sometimes written off as a magician with sound and that’s all. The last section of the first movement of no. 2 has aroused a lot of comment ever since Cecil Forsyth years ago said that the recapitulation in this movement came before the exposition. In modern terms this is called "deconstruction" (a word associated with much modern art). Sibelius is attempting to put together again the imposing edifice he created in the central climax of the movement, but putting together the bricks in such a way that they fall apart again, so undermining what he did previously. After each pause Stokowski makes a slight spurt of tempo as the material is put together, then has to stop (because there is another pause), so we actually hear this deconstruction taking place. But we also realized that it was implicit from the beginning. When that clucking theme in the woodwind enters after the opening string chorale, Stokowski has the players slightly accelerating away from the rest of the orchestra, and they do this every time that theme comes. With another conductor this would spell disaster for the ensemble. Stokowski gets away with it and by this means shows us the purpose of this theme in the movement.

Building climaxes. Stokowski has such a total command of orchestral dynamics that he can create a swift climax out of nothing, or build a long one over several pages, turning phrases into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Other conductors can build long climaxes, but often you feel they are holding back so as to keep something in reserve. Stokowski apparently lives every moment, and yet he always gets more next time, This was one of the few occasions when I felt that the finale of no. 2 didn’t reach its climax about half-way through.

In short, these are great, unrepeatable and inimitable recordings on a level with (for example) Furtwängler’s Schumann 4. Schumann was never privileged to hear that, but the booklet of this disc reproduces a letter from Sibelius to Stokowski thanking him for his "wonderful performance of my First Symphony". If you have heard these works so often you wonder if they’ve still got anything to say for you, get this at all costs (not that it costs much!). But don’t play it too often, keep a "safe" version like Berglund’s for everyday use; this is too special.

The recordings are close-miked but have a lot of character. The booklet has an essay on the symphonies by Edward Clark, the President of the UK Sibelius Society, a note from Stokowski expert Edward Johnson on the conductor’s relationship with Sibelius’s music generally – and Stokowski’s own note to the original issue of no. 2. Among other things, he writes: "Great music always has great themes… this symphony has an inexhaustible variety of themes and moods, sometimes rustic, at times like fantastic cries of Nature, rushing, impulsive waves of sound, like violent wind on the surface of a lake, or through the high trees of a forest ..". I can’t imagine any conductor today writing like that. They don’t conduct like this, either …

Christopher Howell


See also review from Rob Barnett [September RECORDING OF THE MONTH]




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