Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Sibelius: Unconventional Tone Poet
Symphonies Nos. 1-5, 7, Pohjola‘s Daughter; En Saga; Karelia Suite; songs; Pelléas et Mélisande; Finlandia; Swanwhite; Lemminkainen‘s Return; The Bard; Violin Concerto; The Oceanides; The Tempest: Prelude; Festivo; The Swan of Tuonela; Valse Triste
BBC Symphony Orchestra; Berliner Philharmoniker; Boston Symphony Orchestra; London Philharmonic Orchestra; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Philharmonia Orchestra; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; John Barbirolli; Sir Thomas Beecham; Herbert von Karajan; Paul Kletzki; Serge Koussevitzky; Hans Rosbaud; Kim Borg; Erik Werba; Ginette Neveu; Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Süsskind
rec. 1933-1996. mono ADD, stereo DDD
Full contents listing at end of review
MEMBRAN 233314 [10 CDs: c. 474:00]
While Bis remain the apple of every Sibelian’s eye with their definitive and momentous Sibelius Edition - now almost complete - other companies continue to issue music by the Finnish bard. Membran now enter the lists.
This box is largely taken up with historic mono recordings from the 1930s-50s. The complexities of international or domestic IPR were never within my grasp but such collections seem increasingly common as protection periods expire. The coverage here extends to take in all but one of the symphonies and many of the leading tone poems. The recordings are all well enough known to determined enthusiasts.
We launch with a remarkably vivid and uber-dramatic First Symphony from Barbirolli. Dynamic contrast is excitingly observed and visceral accelerations goad the music forward. It’s very special indeed and the mono recording reveals a wondrous depth of detail and finesse. Barbirolli’s affinity for this work can also be heard in his 1960s EMI stereo version (review) though the temperature in New York in 1942 was higher still. The loss of finer details such as the harp glints in the third movement are a small price to pay for such intensity.
Six years earlier we have the rigidly controlled Koussevitsky Pohjola’s Daughter (see also). Here the sound is more recessed and benefits from a volume boost after Barbirolli’s bright immediacy. The brass have a haughty military character but the woodwind benches are more ingratiating. A mordant whiplash control is in evidence. However my reference untrounced remains the 1972 Horst Stein and the Suisse Romande with the finest yet most red-blooded stereo sound from Decca’s 1970s prime.
There’s more Boston Koussevitsky for the Second Symphony (review) this time in better sound from fourteen years later than the Pohjola sessions. However despite being a good account it lacks the driven fiery concentration of Barbirolli (review review) and the eruptively volcanic Beecham (review).
Kletzki’s Third Symphony is stern and implacable with a Mravinsky-like drive about it. The recording benefits from 1955 technology but is rather grainy. The tightly controlled Beecham En Saga hails from the late 1930s and despite its age still puts across plenty of eerily mesmerising detail and stomped out rhythmic viscera. Excellent though not likely to make me forget Stein (Decca), Toscanini or Furtwängler.
We get two versions of the Fourth Symphony. Karajan’s bristling 1953 version plumbs the sombre depths but brightens for the Allegro molto vivace and the final Allegro. Overall rather strident. Beecham’s pioneering 1937 version has the stylistic virtues of his En Saga and presents a human face beside that of Karajan. For all that the Karajan sound is more recent it is the Beecham that I would favour.
For CD 5 there’s remission from the perils of historical sound. We get a superbly recorded digital stereo version of the Fifth Symphony from Ole Schmidt and the RPO. This has been issued before on RPO-Tring and Regis. It is monumental and indomitable. As for the sound it is as if a pane of matte frosted glass has been removed and we are left in the orchestra's immediate presence. The brass has a really mordant crunch. The stereo spread is gratifying and details, both subtle and stark, emerge new-minted. The finale's hurried tense whisper at 3.44 is superbly put across and so is the pizzicato at 4:13. And those final six asynchronous hammer-blows are stunning. This version slips into the background all too easily but Sibelians need this which could easily stand as the only version in a collection.
Rosbaud recorded a handful of Sibelius’s miniatures for DG; they’re all in this set. His Karelia Suite is from 1957 and buzzes with barely pent excitement and then let exultantly loose. Things are taken with a mite too much sedate deliberation in the Alla Marcia.
CD 6 presents two different versions of the Seventh Symphony each tracked into four segments. The Beecham is the more recent and is in good EMI vintage sound comparing very favourably with the testingly strident Karajan 4 from only two years later. The Beecham is in early and healthy stereo but as a reading it feels too expansive by half – too leisurely – even if the timings do not bear me out. At the end things tighten. It represents a great study version with which to follow the music in score but it lacks the ripcord tension of the glorious Mravinsky/Leningrad (Moscow, 1965). Contrast this with Koussevitsky’s well known recording from a BBC live concert in 1933 in London’s Queen’s Hall. Koussevitsky here has more in common with Mravinsky and the concert hall atmosphere also helps.
CD 7: The 16 songs on CD 7 are taken by Kim Borg in 1957 DG-originated recordings. His bass has plenty of baritonal juice being both steadfast and steady. The sung words are not provided in this set (try the Lieder site for these) but then again there are no liner-notes whatsoever. You will not need them for the two Shakespeare settings and Borg’s English is quite good enough to make the words clearly understood. In that context he occasionally sounds rather like Benjamin Luxon. The details of the tracks are given in the paper sleeve housing each disc. The price is irresistible and heals all such woes – get over it. The artistic yield is high and Erik Werba certainly adds to the harvest in his responses to Sibelius’s varied demands including the lightly tripping work required in Fägellek. Borg croons his way deliciously through the Säv säv susa – the famous Fröding setting. The disc ends with a deeply committed rendition of the Finlandia hymn.
CD 8 ushers us back into the orchestral milieu with a bitingly profiled Pelleas and Melisande Suite from Beecham and the RPO. This has real impact as well as refinement and a tingling lissom quality best appreciated through Spring in the Park which in style recalls the Tchaikovsky of the Serenade for Strings. Idyllic stuff. Rosbaud returns for Finlandia which here is deficient in the sort of angry grip brought to it by Stein (Decca) and Barbirolli (EMI). The Koussevitsky Swan White miniature is a very slow-pulsed account presented in the blanched light of a Finnish evening. Lastly come two examples of 1930s LPO Beecham. Lemminkainen’s Return sports oodles of scudding adrenalin. The musicians play with furies and flames at their heels: breathtaking but not gabbled. Such a pity that it was not the fashion in the 1930s to perform the complete Lemminkäinen Suite. Many of us would give our eye teeth - if we had them - to hear Beecham conducting Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari. The Bard is given a very inward meditative performance – almost melancholy. Such a pity that Beecham never had occasion to record Luonnotar.
CD 9. The Neveu version of the Violin Concerto is venerated in some quarters. It is good but by no means as magical as its preceding reputation would suggest. There are plenty of imaginative things here but overall it is over-rated when measured against the likes of Haendel, Oistrakh and Julian Rachlin. Good recording. Speaking of which, Beecham’s Oceanides sounds luminous and panchromatic – the sound bristles with delightful detail even if the voltage delivery is outpointed by Boult in the 1930s (Dutton) and 1950s (Somm).
The last disc in the set takes us to Rosbaud and DG recordings again. Tapiola is pretty good with the conductor’s sturdiness fully engaged. Not up there with Van Beinum (Eloquence) but admirable in its Homeric concentration and pacing. I mentioned Boult earlier and the LPO are conducted by him in the vituperative whirlpool that is the Prelude to The Tempest. The sound tends towards shrill but the message gets across. The last three tracks are again Rosbaud territory with the nice but inconsequential Festivo, a gleamingly tense Swan (not as potent as the towering Morton Gould version on HDTT) and a lissom Valse Triste.
This very inexpensive set is well worth tracking down for its pleasing variety and stimulating choice of recordings even if the ten discs are hardly packed full. Acquisition might well entail some duplication. That said, Sibelians, young and old, will find this worth far more than the insignificant outlay demanded. Great value so do not miss it.

Rob Barnett
Very inexpensive … a pleasing and stimulating variety. Sibelians young and old will find this worth well more than the insignificant outlay demanded. Great value.
Full contents Listing
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Sibelius: Unconventional Tone Poet
CD 1 [49:44]
Symphony No. 1 in E minor op. 39 [37:30]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/John Barbirolli
Pohjola's Daughter — Symphonic Fantasia op. 49 [12:24]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
Recorded 1936 (5); 1942 (1-4)
CD 2 [41:30]
Symphony No. 2 in D major op. 43 [41:30]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. 1950
CD 3 [45:00]
Symphony No. 3 in C major op. 52 [27:33]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Paul Kletzki
En Saga – Tone Poem [17:37]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1938/39 (4); 1955 (1-3)
CD 4 [68:42]
Symphony No.4 in A minor op.63 [36:04]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Symphony No. 4 in A minor op. 63 [32:35]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1937 (5-8); 1953 (1-4)
CD 5 [44:35]
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major op. 82 [29:01]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Ole Schmidt
Karelia Suite op. 11 [15:36]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Hans Rosbaud
rec.: 1957 (4-6); 1996 (1-3)
CD 6 [41:36]
Symphony No. 7 in C major op. 105 [20:32]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Symphony No. 7 in C major op. 105 [21:04]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. 1933 (5-8); 1955 (1-4)
CD 7 [41:34]
Songs: Drommen (Runeberg) [2:12]; Varen flyktar hastigt (Runeberg,) [1:57]; Till Frigga (Runeberg) [5:02]; Fagellek (Tavaststjerna) [2:16]; Romeo (Tavaststjerna) [1:51]; Demanten pa marssni (Wecksell) [2:34]; Sav, sav, susa (Froding) [2:38]; Svarta rosor (Josephson) [2:11]; Come away, death (from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night) [3:40 When that I was a little tiny boy (from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night) [2:23]; Les trois scents aveugles (Maeterlinck) [3:28]; Im Feld ein Madchen singt (Susman) [3:17]; Lastu lainehilla (Calamnius) [1:39]; Illale (Forsrnan) [1:37]; Souda, souda, sinisorsa (Forsman) [1:55]; Finlandia-Hymni (Koskenniemi) 2:54
Kim Borg (bass); Erik Werba (piano)
rec. 1957
CD 8 [51:57]
Pelleas et Melisande - Incidental Music op. 46 ( Nr. 1 At the Castle Gate [3:29]; Nr. 2 Melisande [5:04]; Nr. 3 Spring in the Park [2:18]; Nr. 4 The Three Blind Sisters [2:46]; Nr. 5 Pastorale [1:59]; Nr. 6 Melisande at the Spinning Wheel [2:11]; Nr. 7 Entr’acte 3:22]; Nr. 8 Melisande's Death [6:34])
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Finlandia - Tone Poem [7:55]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Hans Rosbaud
Swanwhite op. 54, 3 [3:06]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
Lemminkainen's Return op. 22, 4 [6:03]
The Bard op. 64- Symphonic Poem [7:11]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1936 (10); 1937 (11); 1938 (12); 1954 (9); 1955 (1-8)
CD 9 [42:20]
Violin Concerto in D minor op. 47 [31:58]
Ginette Neveu (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Susskind
The Oceanides — Symphonic Poem op. 73 [10:21]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1945 (1-3); 1955 (4)
CD 10 [44:16]
Tapiola op. 112 - Tone Poem [18:26]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Hans Rosbaud
The Tempest: Prelude (from incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest) [6:11]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Festivo op. 25, 3 (from: Scenes historiques) [7:24]
The Swan of Tuonela op. 22, 2 - Legend [7:48]
Valse Triste op. 44 [4:27]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Hans Rosbaud
rec. 1954 (3-5); 1956 (2); 1957 (1)