Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 6 (1923) [25:52]
Luonnotar (1913) [8:42]
Symphony No. 4 (1911) [34:33]
Helmi Liukkonen (soprano)
Finnish National Orchestra/Georg Schneevoigt
rec. 3 or 8 June 1934 (6) (HMV DB 2321-23); live, Queen's Hall, London, 4 June 1934 (4, Luonnotar) (Matrix 213 7064/6 (Luonnotar); Matrix 213 7067/75 (4)). ADD
Transfers by Greg Thompson, Casselberry, Florida, USA. AAD

Once again Historic Recordings (Pine Tree of yore) do invaluable work this time in making available three recordings made during the 1934 London visit by Georg Schneevoigt and the Finnish National Orchestra. Sibelians of long standing may remember a World Record Club LP of Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony. The Sixth emerged on Divine Art. However to have all three together for the first time and the world premiere on CD of the Queen’s Hall items is bullion indeed.

Georg Schneevoigt (1872-1947) was born in Vyborg and died in 1947 in Malmö, Sweden. He set out as an orchestral cellist and was principal of the Helsinki Philharmonic (1896-1902). Amongst his conducting credits were concerts with the predecessor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was a close friend of Sibelius and often conducted his music. Probably through no choice of his own Schneevoigt was seen to vie with that other Finnish Sibelian, Kajanus. Where Kajanus made a series of famous and much reissued recordings Schneevoigt had to make do with what you have here. Bear in mind that in the case of the Fourth and Luonnotar these were not recorded with commercial release in mind; that they have survived at all is a miracle indeed. Schneevoigt’s only representation in the Sibelius Society 78 albums of the 1930s and 1940s was the Sixth Symphony. In any event he did sterling work for the cause. For example he unearthed the manuscripts of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens, and Lemminkäinen in Tuonela which had been thought lost and gave their first performances. He made the first recording of Sibelius's Sixth Symphony which we hear on this disc. He was an emotional character who was so overcome that he wept when conducting Sibelius. His time in LA did him little good with reports of his approach being flaccid and having little or no sense of direction.

This Luonnotar appears to have been the only recording made by soprano Helmi (Telervo) Liukkonen (12 August 1907–23 August 1969). It has been issued before, but only once, and that was on World Records Club LP SH 237. There it was coupled with Schneevoigt’s Symphony No. 4 and The Oceanides of that doughty Sibelian, Adrian Boult, with the BBCSO.

Luonnotar was originally destined for the Finnish soprano Aino Ackté (1876-1944) who gave the first performance on 10 September 1913, in, of all places, the Shire Hall, Gloucester. There the conductor of the Festival Orchestra was Herbert Brewer. It is difficult to imagine a more incongruous setting for the premiere of a work which, with The Bard, is the most intimate of Sibelian orchestral works. The first Finnish performance followed soon after that in January 1914. There the conductor was Schneevoigt and the soloist Ackté.

Written especially for the capabilities of Ackté’s voice Luonnotar (not ‘Luonnatar’ as it appears on Historic Recordings track-listing) has a vocal part encompassing two full octaves with a pianissimo high C flat. It is one the composer’s most magical and enigmatic pieces. A shamanically tense tone poem for soprano and orchestra, the music shivers with barely suppressed and whispered excitement. There are some dramatic outbursts but they are brilliant transients amid a world of icy understatement.

Miraculously clean transfers help the Sixth Symphony and there is no hint of unsteadiness. There are some disc artefacts and the occasional rare scuff. The performance is quite unsentimental but Schneevoigt’s yielding steel and athletic urgency conveys a constant and exalting sense of pressing forward. There’s also some superbly creepy, twig-brittle violin playing towards end of first movement and a firm rigour of pulse in the chant and chatter of the violins at 4:38 onwards in the second. Urgency suffuses this performance which seems to exult in the helter-skelter pell-mell rush of life. It may not be as epic as Sakari Oramo’s full-blooded version for Warner but it triumphs in its reserve. Much the same can be said of Schneevoigt’s Fourth – dry-eyed yet tight, taut and energetic.

These are historic recordings dating from getting on for eighty years ago so do not expect miracles. Even so this disc offers an indispensable 1930s Finnish perspective for out and out Sibelians.

Rob Barnett

Bullion indeed from Schneevoigt, that fabled Sibelius champion of the 1930s