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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
CD 1
En Saga, Op. 9 (1892, rev. 1902) [19:14]
Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) [18:05]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899) [8:04]
Valse Triste, Op. 44 (1903) [4:48]
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Eduard van Beinum
CD 2
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1904) [30:16]
Jan Damen (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Eduard van Beinum
Four Lemminkainen Legends, Op. 22 (1896, rev. 1900, 1937) [45:15] (Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari [16:19]; The Swan of Tuonela [7:41]; Lemminkainen in Tuonela [14:28]; Lemminkainen's Return [6:38])
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Jensen
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, March 1952 (violin concerto); Concertgebouw, Grotezaal, Amsterdam, December 1952 (Tapiola; En Saga); June 1957 (Finlandia; Valse Triste); Copenhagen, July 1953 (Legends). Mono except Finlandia and Valse Triste. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9487 [50:28 + 75:38]
Experience Classicsonline

For me there were two discoveries here and one nostalgic re-discovery. First the discoveries – and apologies to those who already know these things. Van Beinum is, on this evidence, a towering giant among Sibelian conductors joining Ormandy, Beecham, Stokowski and Mravinsky. David Oistrakh’s Moscow recording of the Violin Concerto (BMG-Melodiya) is a ripe classic of the genre and Jan Damen, at least in this recording, shows that he is of the same illustrious school. As for Jensen’s Lemminkainen sequence listener-collectors who were active in the 1950s will recall its first issue. Those who witnessed the dying decade or so of vinyl will remember this interpretation in its Decca Eclipse format complete with – horror of horrors – “electronically processed stereo”. Jensen’s was for many years the only easy way to get hold of the complete Legends – at least in the UK although in the USA CBS had the rather wonderful 1950s Ormandy which is still worth hearing if you can find it. Later in the 1970s it was joined on LP by Foss on Nonesuch, Gibson on RCA, Kamu on DG (a luxury item), Hanninkainen (in the USSR) on Melodiya and Jalas with the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra on Decca. None matched Ormandy though Foss and Hannikainen came very close. Ormandy’s mastery was reaffirmed with only the slightest of dilution by his second recording with the Philadelphia for EMI.
The last time I heard these Sibelius tone poems done with as much care, vivid fantasy and allure as this it was either Ormandy or Horst Stein. Ormandy’s 1950s mono recordings with the Philadelphia are priceless and should have been reissued on CD long ago. After that comes Horst Stein and the Suisse Romande orchestra, recorded in Geneva by Decca in FFRR in the early 1970s. His two LPs reissued on CD in whole on a Decca Double and in part on a Decca Weekend disc were a shock in the early-mid 1970s. Who could have predicted that such a combination of Swiss orchestra and German conductor would have produced golden Sibelius. True the Decca team were working their magic but the results exceeded all expectations. The first SXL 6452 was of Nightride and Sunrise, Pohjola’s Daughter, En Saga and an intensely black-hearted Finlandia. The second, SXL 6973, and just as good as its predecessor included the Four Legends. Stein’s indomitable tempi and attention to fantastic detail went straight into the Hall of Fame in the annals of Sibelian recordings. The competition in the shape of Gibson on RCA then Chandos and Dorati on EMI were eclipsed. Van Beinum was recorded in mono for the two substantial tone poems and the engineering is of the same Decca school. It’s such a pity, on this showing, that he did not also record Pohjola, The Bard and Luonnotar. His En Saga and Tapiola is full of fairy tale spirit, creepy, seductive and enchanting. Phrasing is chiselled without being mannered and the stunning effect is enhanced by the fact that he has at his disposal an orchestra that is fully the equal of the music. The sound team ensures that every phrase tells. Instrumental solos and ensembles are stunning, clearly felt and radiate character. Tapiola is quite difficult to bring off; there are a host of recordings where it fails to engage. Van Beinum limns every phrase as if each matters. This pays massive dividends while at the same time pointing up links with the gale in En Saga and the stormy episodes in the Seventh Symphony. Very special music-making.
Jan Damen’s Sibelius Violin Concerto is a real sleeper in the catalogue. There is something of a track record of leaders of the Concertgebouw making a fitful solo career. Herman Krebbers during Haitink’s reign made fine recordings of the Brahms and Beethoven concertos. Jan Damen is said to have been a strong presence in May 1956 in Van Beinum’s Sheherazade (EMI Great Conductors of the 20th Century 5759412) no doubt contributing as much allure as the young David Oistrakh in the USSRSO/Golovanov recording (Boheme International CDBMR GOLO6). Damen’s performance with Van Beinum is pretty much perfect in the first two movements. Such concentration and such peach-deep full-lipped tone. It’s a complete joy to hear. Of course you must put up with a hint of graininess in the extremely upfront sound but the dividends are enormous. In the finale the concentration at first slipped from the exalted level sustained in the predecessor movements but soon reasserted itself. These days a silvery fine threads of solo sound are the order of the day. Jan Damen is of the Oistrakh school. In fact left to guess I would have identified Oistrakh as the player. This was not Damen’s only recording of the Sibelius. There is another with Monteux which I have not heard.
The Lemminkainen Legends are a particular favourite of mine. Both Ormandys rank high. The second, from 1978 is easily accessible. As for Jensen and his usual Danish orchestra this is a very good performance and probably has never sounded as good as it sounds now. It’s virile and intense but the recording is not quite as vigorous and immediate as the one enjoyed by Van Beinum. I notice two thumps at 4:15 in the first Legend which sounded like an LP artefact rather than tape; surely not. Also in the same episode at 7:52 I was disappointed that the woodwind ‘chirrups’ go for nothing – or hardly anything. On the other hand the power of this reading can be felt in the energetic battering meted out by the brass at 9:55, in the intensity of the Swan with its very forward cor anglais, in the nicely calculated sense of nocturnal threat in the third Legend and in the stunning tutti in the Homecoming. The latter is quick but not as hell-for-leather as Beecham in his classic EMI recording.
Altogether a box of delights and discoveries for Sibelians.
Rob Barnett


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