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CD: Pristine Classical

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
En Saga, Op. 9 (1892, rev 1902) [15:47]
Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49 (1906) [11:50]
The Oceanides, Op. 73 (1914) [8:24]*
Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) [18:10]*
Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)
Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 19 (Midsommarvaka) (11:47)+
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. Academy of Music, Philadelphia, March 1955, *December 1955, + February 1953

Experience Classicsonline

A digital restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn ipso facto merits attention. The first things we hear, however - the soft violin ostinatos that open En Saga, sounding papery and lacking in depth - don't augur well. As it turns out, only this sort of passage - fewer in all this Sibelius than one might fear - is so afflicted. Elsewhere, there's an astonishing vividness and body to the woodwinds and brass - the effect in monaural is necessarily front-and-center - while the more full-throated string playing is big and bold, with the cellos coming off particularly well. The deep bass response is tremendous. Only the climactic tuttis of En Saga, where the sonority didn't expand as expected, made me miss stereo - but that just testifies to the overall quality of the single-channel reproduction here.

The performances are mostly excellent. Ormandy's renderings of Sibelius's first two symphonies, stressing their lyrical melos and their dramatic surge and sweep - gave him a reputation as a "Romantic" Sibelian. But in these tone poems, which span the composer's active career, the conductor proves attuned to the anxious ostinatos, unstable harmonies, and other forward-looking aspects of Sibelius's idiom, while his feeling for color proves an asset in realizing the expressive potential of the composer's orchestral palette.

Some straight-up documentary value inheres here, too, as Ormandy didn't redo these pieces in stereo for Columbia - as CBS was known Stateside. If I remember correctly, the monaural LP stayed nominally in print well into the 1970s, but it couldn't have won many sound-conscious buyers. Meanwhile, it was Bernstein who would work his way through a Sibelius cycle for the company. Ormandy did, finally, return to Pohjola's Daughter and The Oceanides in his RCA Sibelius series - which I've not heard - but the present performances appear to be his only representations of the other two scores.

And it's those scores that receive the most convincing performances here. The early En Saga moves along forthrightly, befitting the bardic work of a young nationalist composer. Attacks are incisive, with the dotted rhythms providing a driving impetus; the themes are shaped and stressed with a lilt suggesting folksong. The opening of the piece, sonically compromised as it is, misses the requisite Nordic chill, but the vibrant, searching passage for divided strings at 10:16 is effective. The Oceanides catches Ormandy in an uncharacteristic pictorial mood. The string figurations and flute motifs at the start have a suggestive, undulating lightness; the sustained woodwinds in the following episode are plastic and translucent. Dissonant sustained brass make ominous interjections before the music breaks through to a climactic tonal chorale, with the conductor shaping the closing pages in a great arch.

In Pohjola's Daughter, after the brooding opening cello and bassoon solos, the main melodic material hustles along, though with better control than in, say, Gibson's hasty account - RCA, vinyl. Incisively etched instrumental lines make for kaleidoscopic shifts of color, with the conductor making tempo transitions sound logical and inevitable. The closing low-string cadence is clearly audible, for once, though accompanied by a conspicuous extraneous rumble.

Some listeners will say this Tapiola doesn't "sound right": the Philadelphia string sonority is, again, rich and vibrant, rather than dark and dense in the manner of Colin Davis (Philips) or even Ernest Ansermet (Decca). But the singing phrases at the start are impassioned, while the chattering passage shortly thereafter is impressively full-bodied. Ormandy brings out the unsettling instability of the woodwind phrases at 7:51, and throughout the performance, intense orchestral colors impress the individual episodes more distinctly on the ear than in most accounts.

The Alfvén is of less discographic importance, since Ormandy did re-record it in stereo for Columbia; but it's an apt enough makeweight, and notable for the restorer's elaborate efforts. Obert-Thorn apparently had access neither to original mastertapes nor to the original ten-inch release, and his source LP started flat and became progressively more so. A painstaking transfer has brought everything back to pitch. Ironically, the results remain less good than in the Sibelius items, at once more resonant and duller, with more miscellaneous noise around the ensemble. Still, one can enjoy the violins' virtuosity in the final "drone" section.

The Sibelius performances provide more musical satisfaction than most newer accounts - I'm hard pressed to recall an En Saga as powerful as Ormandy's - especially as the single-channel recording comes up brilliantly. You might consider this, then, as a "basic library" choice, perhaps supplemented by Bernstein (Sony) or Barbirolli (EMI) in Pohjola's Daughter, and Davis in Tapiola.

Stephen Francis Vasta

see also review by Rob Barnett  



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