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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Finlandia Op. 26 No. 7 (1899) [7:08]
Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39 (1898) [32:56]
Pelléas and Mélisande Op.46 (excerpts from incidental music) (1905) [14:56]
Symphony No.7 in C major op. 105 (1924) [17:48]
Helsinki City Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. live, Helsinki University’s Festival Hall, 17 June 1953,
GUILD GHCD2341 [78:55]
Experience Classicsonline

This disc is of the greatest musical interest. It contains a complete concert from Helsinki entirely devoted to the music of Sibelius in which the Helsinki City Orchestra is conducted by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977).
Sibelius did not lack for concert performances during his long life. Ironically this popularity coincided with his ceasing ambitious composition activity after circa 1925. Kajanus, Wood, Bantock, Beecham, Stokowski, Ormandy, Collins and so many others took his music worldwide. It held the stage until the lurch of fashion moved it into eclipse for a decade or so after Sibelius’s death. After this the upswing in interest guaranteed it recordings from a new generation of conductors including Maazel. Even then Boult, Cameron and Collins championed the symphonies during the post-mortem ‘darkness’. Now, some fifty years after the composer’s death recordings abound. Most recently we have had three momentous volumes of Bis's glorious Complete Sibelius series alongside a landslide of new recordings and reissues.
This Guild collection is new to the commercial recording field. It is decidedly vintage stuff but those who demand exemplary modern sound will want to pass it by. Dedicated Sibelians will however be snapping it up and they will be right to do so. Stokowski championed so many contemporary composers during his years with the Philadelphians and in the long 'wilderness' years after that. He certainly knew his Sibelius and was widely respected in this repertoire. This led to the prized invitation to Helsinki as the conductor of the valedictory concert in Helsinki's Sibelius Festival in 1953, a mere four years before the composer's death in 1957.
The recordings derive from second generation transcriptions of a CBS complete concert broadcast and incorporates audience applause as well as hall ambience. The latter is felt most strongly during the announcements. Radio commentary is included with the commentator reminding us that Sibelius was listening to the concert in Järvenpäa over the wireless. Who is the announcer please? His voice and manner is both agreeable and dignified.
After a stern, whiplash-gruff Finlandia, reminiscent of the excellent Horst Stein/SRO recording on Decca, comes the First Symphony. This was a work which Stokowski was to re-record in London in 1976 for CBS within a year of his own death. On that occasion his orchestra was Sidney Sax's National Philharmonic. Here we have a tetchy, even vituperative, reading in which the predominant impression is of acceleration – even impatience. The Helsinki players are pushed to the limit. This is among the very speediest Sibelius Ones (32:56). Compare this with Barbirolli’s Hallé EMI Classics recording at 41:50. That said, there is respite and balm in the yearning Andante (II 1:02). As is the case throughout this disc the mono sound is of unrefined AM quality. You also have to resign yourself to some rustling distortion and a few worse moments (I, 7:55). These only register transiently and then only if you let yourself be distracted from what is going on with the orchestra.
There are also five episodes from the music for Pelléas and Mélisande: a hesitant Mélisande with a lovely lippy oboe principal, a grumbling and rockingly inimical By the Sea in which sea is a shuddering horror, a translucent and lovingly shaped Pastorale in which the solo flute is an airy dancer and a Golovanov-hard-pressed Entr'Acte (just a shade too breathless and impatient). There’s also a well sustained and intense The Death of Mélisande in which the piled-on string tone suffers from distortion.
I am in two minds about this Seventh. It pushes forward purposefully but its epic qualities are generalised. Compared with Ormandy this is sometimes almost ordinary, even perfunctory. Mravinsky - and his Melodiya engineers - made more of the hieratic eminence of the trombone and the whooping climax at 15:10. I should also just note that with the disc under review there is some hissing and tizzing distortion at 10:34. On the other hand more is made of the storm element and parallels are drawn, consciously or unwittingly, with the Prelude to The Tempest and the supernal gale in Tapiola. A firm grip is maintained by Stokowski on the sense of grandeur and summation that soaks the final two minutes of this performance.
The insightful notes are by Robert Matthew-Walker who time and again hits the spot with fresh observations and perspectives. Interesting to be reminded that Stokowski, like all his contemporaries, including that doyen of the Sibelius acolytes Kajanus, failed to leave a complete cycle of the symphonies. This honour ultimately fell to Ehrling, Collins and Watanabe.
Sibelians will quite properly want this invaluable collection. I hope that Guild have more Sibelius concerts in their recording roster. What I wouldn't give to hear Stokoswski conducting Pohjola's Daughter or some of the symphonies conducted by Basil Cameron one-time conductor of the SFSO and once-known as Basil Hindenberg! Meantime do snap up this collection and you will encounter a mixed Seventh, a white hot First, and a very fine Pelléas suite.
Rob Barnett


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