Reviews of the Collins Sibelius
cycle on Beulah: Patrick
C Waller; Rob
These two Decca Eloquence
sets are available separately. At
their heart is a cycle of recordings
made by Decca in London during the
period 1952-55. They will be known
to many collectors as a result of
their reissue first on Decca Eclipse
LPs in the 1970s and before that on
Decca Ace of Clubs. More relevantly
these days it is likely to be known
through the authorised set on Beulah
1-4PD8 – re-mastered in 1994. These
tapes have been freshly mastered for
this project but time has in a few
places taken its toll.
Collins’ was the
first domestically available collection
of the Sibelius symphonies. Victor
Olof - who also enjoyed a fruitful
recording relationship with Campoli
– was the progenitor. He had the prescience
to select Collins (1893-1963) who
had been making a conducting and film
music career for himself in California.
Against this background the choice
of an unfashionable orchestra and
an unknown conductor might have seemed
rash. In fact the choice turned out
to be extremely perceptive - all the
more so with some fine recordings
in Decca’s vaunted FFRR sound.
The First Symphony
is passionately done with string
solos of restrained sweetness (4.38
in I) and bass drum thuds (7:13; I)
which impress. Coal-black brass salvoes
and moments of monumental drama -
the string cascade 2:57, IV - bedeck
this classic recording. The Lemminkainen-like
'stuttering' at 6:06 (IV) is notable.
It also reminds the listener of Kullervo.
What a pity that Collins/Decca never
recorded that work. Listen
at high volume and you will hear throughout
a distant puttering sound. Nothing
to be concerned about; simply be aware.
I compared the Beulah equivalent and
it’s absent from that disc. It’s a
small demerit in a performance as
splenetically engaged (IV, 2:59) as
this. Certainly to be counted in the
distinguished company of the versions
by Barbirolli/Hallé (EMI, only
as part of a Sibelius box) and Stokowski/National
Phil (Desmar then Sony).
The Second Symphony
is interpreted and recorded in
a way that catches its earthy mystery
as well as its exhilaration. Not the
equal of Barbirolli's RPO (Reader's
Digest, then Chesky) stereo recording
it still develops considerable whip-crack
excitement. Listen to the first few
minutes of the third movement and
stop listening if you can. The gales
in this work reach across the years
to Sibelius's final 'symphony' Tapiola.
There are so many highlights but listen
particularly to the midnight satin
strings at 9.20 (III). On the down-side
I wondered about the unanimity of
the trombones in the long finale.
The work has many glories and bids
high to be one of the enduring treasures
in the annals of recorded sound. No
sign of that puttering sound in this
In the clean-limbed
Third Symphony Collins puts
across the controlled icy fever of
the string writing. The work's almost
classical restraint contrasts with
the bearing of its two predecessors.
Some of the edges are softened as
at 2.30 (I) in the strings. However
in the finale the burred rolling horns
- completely uncompromised by the
passage of time - register fervently
in a rapid furious wave.
The Fourth Symphony
is suitably taciturn and grim
but the recording could have done
with more spotlighting of the solos.
The cello in the first and last movements
seems recessed though I am sure the
balance is quite naturalistic; not
necessarily the reason you buy recordings.
Nevertheless the oboe in the second
movement enjoys some winning prominence
in the aural landscape. Things do
not go so flowingly in the final movement
though the sound is again wonderful;
listen to the bells at 00.25 and 1:43.
The Fifth Symphony
is an epic work, not in duration
- less than 30 minutes in Collins'
hands - but in spirit. A lively muscularity
blends the lighter Sibelius peaking
through the thickets with threatening
and unpredictable elemental forces.
Collins does not strive to darken
this symphony but very little of its
natural power escapes his gimlet eyes.
The ticking strings accompanying the
bell-theme on the woodwind (4.40)
in the finale are simply glorious
and the sound quality is out of Ken
Wilkinson's top-drawer. The final
hammer-chords are securely and satisfyingly
captured although there is a trace
The Sixth Symphony
is very cleanly recorded and indomitably
paced but did I notice concentration
and tension slackening in first movement?
Doubts are soon swept away. The woodwind
effervesce vivaciously throughout
and are pleasingly and precisely accented
in the finale. For those who find
symphonies 1 and 2 too overtly romantic
try 3 and 6. The finale calls irresistibly
across northern meadows in twilight
and perpetual anticipation. That inwardly-lit
yet weighty string tone is as satin
is to tweed.
The Seventh Symphony
is a touch too civilised and ponderous
though still conveying rough-hewn
qualities. Its deliberation can be
compared with the 1953 Helsinki concert
performance by Stokowski on Guild.
Though taut this version is not the
equal of the 1960s stereo accounts
by Mravinsky on Melodiya or Ormandy
on Sony-CBS. Be warned: time has dealt
the tapes a certain rawness which
can be heard in the fff passages
towards the end (16:00-17:30).
The sombre and glowing
Pohjola's Daughter provides
bardic beauty conjured from bleak
shadows and a rock-steady beat. The
work is effectively a mini-symphony.
Any film music fan exploring classical
music would do well to listen to this
before any of the Sibelius symphonies.
It is one of the most imaginative
masterpieces of 20th century orchestral
Sunrise is all you might wish
for with many captivating features
including the ear-tickling clatter
of percussion, the metallic clash
of iron-shod hooves (00.21) and a
fascinating ultra-fast beat. The woodwind
interventions are explosive. The sunrise
looks forward to Nielsen's own Mediterranean
dawn: the Helios overture of
six years later. Strange to recall
that the long-sustained underpinning
rhythm was suggested by the rail-clatter
of a train journey rather than anything
even vaguely equestrian.
There are five excerpts
from the salon-like Pelléas
and Mélisande. The
flickering strings sound really splendid
in The Spinning Wheel movement
but the first movement is rather dull-sounding.
Overture is the last Collins-LSO
piece. It is given a romanticised
treatment abuzz with anticipation
then unleashed at a fast tempo.
As a substantial
make-weight Eloquence have added Thomas
Jensen’s DRSO Karelia Suite
and it is very good indeed.
Just as apparent as in Jensen’s Lemminkainen
Legends with the same orchestra
the conductor is prone to furious
speed at the slightest encouragement.
He does however resist temptation
in favour of a very agreeable boister
and buoyancy in the Alla Marcia.
All the Collins sessions
took place in the fabulous acoustic
of the Kingsway Hall which was demolished
in 1999. What a pity that experimental
stereo tapes were not made in parallel
with the mono ones!
The notes are by
Raymond Tuttle. They are generous
in their coverage and typically well
written. I was pleased to see that
the profile of the conductor avoids
the error now to be found in Grove
where the author of the article there
claims that Collins recorded Bantock.
In fact that was Walter Collins
Eloquence on their choice of this
particular type of single-width double
jewel-case. These are the last word
in simplicity with the recessed side,
hinged left, carrying disc 2 falling
open as required with a slight shake.
This remains classic
Sibelius tellingly put across in pioneering
mono sound which only occasionally
shows its age. A must-get for Sibelius
enthusiasts and collectors everywhere.