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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Finlandia op.26/7 (1899) [07:08]
Symphony no. 1 in E minor op. 39 (1898) [32:56]
Pelléas et Mélisande op. 46 (1905): 2. Mélisande [04:06], 3. By the Sea [01:35], 6. Pastorale [01:52], 8. Entr’acte [02:13], 9. The Death of Mélisande [05:11]
Symphony no. 7 in C op. 105 (1924) [17:48]
Helsinki City Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. live, 17 June 1953, Helsinki University Festival Hall. Radio announcements (in English) are included. Mono.
GUILD GHCD2341 [78:55]
Experience Classicsonline

For the closing concert of the 1953 Helsinki Festival, one of Sibelius’s greatest international champions, Leopold Stokowski, was invited to conduct the Helsinki City Symphony Orchestra. Part of the programme was familiar Stokowski territory. He had made the first ever recording of Finlandia in 1921 (with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and had set down the First Symphony not long before, in 1950. But, although he had conducted the American première of the Seventh Symphony (Philadelphia 1926) his sole studio recording of it, with the All-American Youth Orchestra (1940), had remained unissued and appeared only in 1994. Furthermore, the present five movements from Pelléas et Mélisande may be his only surviving recording of this music.

Sibelius himself listened to the concert on his radio at home. The booklet reproduces his letter to Stokowski of September 10th 1953 in which he says that “Your concerts here last June are unforgettable for us all”. As Robert Matthew-Walker points out, if “we possessed broadcast recordings of … orchestral music by, say, Tchaikovsky or Brahms, made when the composers were still alive and possibly giving their approval of the performances – such aspects of ‘authenticity’ which we, in our history-obsessed age, seek to recreate, would be there for us to experience…”.

All the same, I think too much can be made of this. During his unproductive later years, Sibelius seems to have been a fairly assiduous listener to broadcasts and recordings of his music and expressed his gratitude for quite a range of interpretative solutions. Just to give one example, in Koussevitsky’s première recording of the Seventh Symphony, the strings of the 1933 BBC SO can be heard applying quite lavish portamenti. Since Sibelius was delighted with the recording it may be supposed that he liked this sort of playing. But portamento was already in its death throes. The next issued recording, by the St. Louis SO under Vladimir Golschmann (1942), already sounds like normal modern orchestral playing. Sibelius’s favourite interpreter at the end of his life, Tauno Hannikainen, set down a number of recordings which made no attempt to revive portamento. He also adopted a more austere, literal interpretative style than that of earlier conductors, including Sibelius’s favoured interpreter in his younger days, Robert Kajanus. In other words, in the end we’re simply left asking ourselves, as we do with Mozart or Beethoven, whether the performance communicates something to us and whether, perhaps, it meets our – necessarily subjective – criteria of what is “Sibelian”.

Another problem is that I sincerely hope Sibelius himself enjoyed better wireless reception than did the home taper to whom we owe the present disc. The announcements show it to have been a relay by an American broadcasting station and the ether was pretty busy that evening. Swishes and fizzes of varying intensity provide a fairly constant barrage, and they seem to go round in cycles. This is particularly noticeable in long-held chords, which acquire blips in the middle as the disturbance reaches its apex. They then recompose themselves as we await the next wave. The general lines of the music come through but in all truth, a listener who didn’t already have a clear aural picture of the trio to the third movement of the First Symphony, to name one especially bad patch, just wouldn’t understand anything at all. Still, it does offer a fascinating peep into the past.

Critical tastes evolve, of course. The 1955 edition of “The Record Guide”, which enjoyed almost Biblical status in its day, told us stiffly that “The deleted Stokowski SP set [of Symphony 1], with its technicolor recording, had made us think ill of the Sibelius – an unfair judgement corrected by the magnificent recording conducted by Anthony Collins”. If Stokowski himself ever read this, he no doubt took consolation in the above-mentioned letter, in which Sibelius himself described the recording as “wonderful”. Maybe we’re more ready today to accept a range of different solutions. I doubt if anyone would deny Collins’s “magnificent” centrality, but I was quite bowled over by the 1950 Stokowski (see review). Rob Barnett was also highly impressed. It’s obviously of some interest to hear that the conductor could create the same white-hot tension three years later with a lesser orchestra, but in view of the sonic problems I doubt if even the most rabid Stokowski-phile would need to hear the point proved more than once. It may be of worth noting that the timings are fractionally faster in 1953, but by a mere few seconds. Or perhaps they were not, really. The present CD is marginally sharper in pitch compared with the studio recording. For all I know, concert pitch may have been a tad higher in 1953 Helsinki than in 1950 New York but I think it more likely that the amateur taping plays just a little too fast, probably not enough to affect our perception of the performance but enough to lop a few seconds off each movement. It’s interesting to reflect that, in view of the very full timing, had the tapes been transferred at the same pitch as the New York version, the entire concert would not have fitted onto the CD.

I’m afraid I found “Finlandia” rather irritating on account of the way Stokowski never plays two consecutive bars in the same tempo in the big theme. This, to my ears, is merely capricious and I retreated gratefully to Jensen’s fervent performance, where the tensions seem to arise from the music itself.

The “Pelléas” pieces certainly demonstrate Stokowski’s ability to create a potent atmosphere and his plastic moulding of phrases. Yet, turning to Berglund’s more austere versions I find the atmosphere if anything more hypnotic still, with a sense of shadow more in keeping with Maeterlinck’s play.

Stokowski’s 1940 Seventh Symphony was to have been the second recording ever, the first studio recording and the first American recording except that, as I noted above, it wasn’t issued till 1994. Unusually for those days, the first recording was made live, by the BBC SO under Koussevitzky. It was a hard act to follow. In spite of the old-fashioned portamento, there is a vibrancy and fervour to the string playing, and a bite and precision, that remain amazing. The tempi are fairly broad and the overall impression is of passion, power and grandeur. Both this and the next issued recording, under Golschmann, took around twenty minutes and the pacing of the individual sections is not dissimilar. Golschmann could hardly screw up the tension like Koussevitzky but the more pastoral sound of his orchestra has its own attraction. Tension builds up over the span of the work while the closing bars, leading to the enigmatic “Valse triste” quotation and the final crescendo with its hair-raising suspensions that seemingly never want to resolve, are handled with great poetry and insight. Probably not an essential version, but Sibelians who come across it will not regret hearing it. I don’t know the 1940 Stokowski or the 1942 Beecham.

It will probably not be thought surprising that the live Boult performance issued fairly recently on BBC Classics also takes around twenty minutes, or that Berglund – I have his Helsinki version – takes a minute more. Slightly more unexpectedly Bernstein’s recording in his 1960s cycle – from the days when he was still more firebrand than sage – adds another minute still. But the point about these details is that Stokowski gets through the piece in a mere seventeen minutes – the timing given above includes applause. Just occasionally he sounds a little breathless, or the orchestra does. The big trombone theme is passed over with remarkably little emphasis and the poetry found by Golschmann at the end is not attempted. Nor do the final clashing suspensions really register. From one point of view, Stokowski could be found distressingly superficial. On the other hand, he does have sweep. There is an inexorable surge from beginning to end, and he seems willing to sacrifice any details that might get in the way. At times the combination of fuzzy recording, edge-of-seat playing and speed suggest a writhing Debussian seascape rather than the Northern pine forests in their sharply-etched, snow-clad detail. The trouble is, without the possibility to hear this interpretation with a clear recording and a front-rank orchestra, it is difficult to be sure if this is what Stokowski was actually aiming at, or even what his listeners heard. And another difficulty is that, if we dismiss it as impressive but not quite what Sibelius was driving at, we have to explain away the fact that Sibelius apparently enjoyed it very much. The 1940 recording should help to clarify Stokowski’s view of the piece, but a quite detailed review I have seen – not on this site – describes a different sort of performance altogether, the opening slow and grand, for example. Under the circumstances Stokowski’s admirers can hardly afford to miss the present issue, whatever its shortcomings. For the more general music lover, the historical Sibelius Seven you really can’t be without is the Koussevitzky, but Sibelians may like to make up their minds about a performance that is sui generis.

Christopher Howell 

see also Review by Rob Barnett 


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