Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Finlandia Op.26 (1899-1900) [7:37]
Tapiola Op.112 (1926) [18:05]
Oceanides Op.73 (1914) [9:08]
Nightride and Sunrise (1903) [14:11]
Pohjola's Daughter Op.49 (1906) [13.45]
Prelude to The Tempest Op.109 No.1 (1926) [6.13]
rec. June 1956 Walthamstow Town Hall, London
SOMM CD093 [69:05]
This is touted as a CD premiere appearance but it’s not so. There was a Nixa release, and all of Boult’s Sibelius recordings of the time have been released on Omega Classics.
These 1956 recordings reveal Boult’s strengths in this repertoire. He is architecturally sagacious and reaches climaxes with formidable intelligence and imagination. He’s neither rash nor rhythmically slack, preferring - in the main - quite a taut ride throughout. It is notable that he didn’t record a Sibelius Symphony, though he did set down 78 recordings of The Oceanides and Nightride and Sunrise back in the 1930s with his BBC orchestra. There were plenty of British Sibelius conductors about at the time - the short-lived Leslie Heward, Basil Cameron, Anthony Collins, Beecham, Barbirolli and Sargent amongst them - so Boult got squeezed. But surely some example of his way with Sibelius symphonic repertoire has survived. A quick look at Michael Kennedy’s biography shows that Boult conducted the Second Symphony in Graz in 1965. It was a work he’d first worked on in 1937, spurred on by a visit by Toscanini. Let’s hope the BBC can provide something.
This selection then shows his brisk but not brusque strengths. He’s quite businesslike when it comes to Finlandia. The percussion is rather distant here, and the tempo makes Barbirolli sound like Knappertsbusch. Tapiola receives a fine, authoritative reading but better is The Oceanides where, as with his 78, he explores the atmsopherics of the piece illuminated by an acute structural grading. When it comes to Nightride and Sunrise we find him in quasi-Toscanini mode. It’s a brilliantly forward-moving conception, though Anthony Collins took it just as fast in his contemporaneous Decca recording. There’s real brass nobility as the piece draws to an end. The sense of music moving forward with unanswerable logic was a Boult speciality during his leaner youthful and mid-point years. And this is especially true of Pohjola's Daughter which receives a whipped-up drama of a performance, full of brooding interjections and sonorities.
So, Boult stands revealed as a fine exponent of the tone poems. The recordings themselves sound as good, I suspect, as they are going to at the moment. But you will still have to accept some rather papery sonics and awry balances, and sometimes orchestral ensemble discipline is lacking the ultimate distinction.
And a further perspective from Rob Barnett:-
These recordings first saw the light of day in the year of Sibelius’s death. Sibelius had died at the age of 92 on 20 September 1957 at Ainola, the family home, near Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää. These recordings came out on a pair of Nixa 12" LPs. Their impact was however lessened by the fact that the arc of Sibelius’s popularity was on a downward curve at the time only to begin recovery in the mid-late 1960s. Those long-players were: Volume 1: Legends and Sagas: En Saga; Swan of Tuonela; Lemminkainen’s Homecoming; Pohjola’s Daughter; The Bard (NCLI6023) and Volume 2: Patriotic and Nature Pieces: Tapiola; Oceanides; Nightride and Sunrise; Finlandia; The Tempest Prelude (NCL16024). The performers were listed on the LP sleeves, no doubt for contractual reasons, as “Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult”. The recordings also put in an appearance on Austrian Amadeo AVRS 6067. They resurfaced in the late 1980s on a couple of Vanguard Omega CDs though the silences between tracks were lamentably short.
Boult was not new to Sibelius having been enlisted by the Sibelius Society to fill in around Kajanus, Schneevoight and Beecham. In this capacity he had recorded two of the tone poems with the BBCSO during his 1930s heyday with that orchestra. They were The Oceanides on DB2797 [7:54] and Nightride and Sunrise on DB2795-6 [13:22]. These 78s were made for HMV at their Abbey Road No. 1 Studio on 23 January 1936 and are now available on Dutton Vocalion CDBP 9771. Some twenty years later when the Nixa recordings were made Boult’s Sibelius had slowed somewhat, as can be seen above.
Boult’s Finlandia is grim and but afflicted with a heavy languor. In this sense he is no match for Barbirolli’s late 1960s EMI version - lax symphonies but stirring tone poems - or Horst Stein’s magnificent 1970s account on Decca. Oddly enough the much-underrated Stein avoided the symphonies but made a glorious series of tone poem recordings including a remarkable En Saga and a hardly less luminous Pohjola’s Daughter. Nightride and Sunrise is fast driven - much in the same mould as Paavo Järvi’s more recent version. You keep wondering if this is going to turn into a train-wreck but the orchestra holds as steady as Beecham’s fury-whipped RPO for the classic Lemminkainen’s Return. Towards the end that great burst of energy seems to dissipate and a more broadly relaxed air pervades the music consistent with the horizon-filling sunrise. The Oceanides here are portayed as Mediterranean nymphs rather than Nordic sea-spirits - just as Sibelius intended. Pohjola's Daughter is built at first very rigidly but then comes a sense of release (at 2.30). Its central section is detrimentally broad. The action is whipped at the close and there is a coal black edge to brass barks. I notice a tape splice at c 8.25. Otherwise this is full of finely judged and utterly masculine touches. Boult’s Tapiola is grave, impetuous and intemperate. The Tempest prelude is especially impressive (for a while it served as a filler to one of Boult's Pye LPs of The Planets) drawing obvious parallels with Tapiola’s goaded storm.
While this set is important for Sibelians the mono sound is bound to be a disincentive to some. The sound, intrinsically, is not as solid and vivid as the mono set of symphonies and a selection of tone poems from Beulah (LSO/Collins - originally Decca).
I hope that there will be a volume 2 from SOMM. If not I could have lived without Finlandia and even the Prelude if they had also included En Saga and The Bard.
At least one little regarded aspect of Boult's character seems to come over: Boult the irascible martinet. Sibelians need to hear this.