Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957):
Kajanus conducts Sibelius – vol. 1 (1930-1932)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 [35:32]
Pohjola’s Daughter – Symphonic Fantasy, Op. 49 [12:38]
Tapiola – Symphonic Poem, Op. 112 [18:04]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony 1); London Symphony Orchestra/Robert Kajanus
rec. Central Hall, Westminster, 21-23 May 1930 (Symphony 1); EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, 29-30 June 1932. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111393 [66:13]
When first issued in the 1930s the Sibelius Society albums must have seemed pretty exotic things despite early advocacy in the concert hall by Wood, Beecham and Bantock. After all, this was a Finnish composer’s strange orchestral music conducted by a Finnish conductor with an outlandish name and, in the case of later volumes, using a Finnish orchestra. Add to this that these were pioneering recordings. The effect is difficult to evoke at this remove in time given the myriad versions that can now be obtained. Even so, the point is worthy of reflection.
Naxos is no stranger to Sibelius’s orchestral works. Unfairly slighted and with some vibrant strengths there is their first version with Adrian Leaper and the Slovak Phil (8.504002) which was recorded 1988-90. Between 1997 and 2000 Naxos engineers went to Reykjavik for a strong Petri Sakari cycle (8.505179). Time moved on and Iceland made way for New Zealand and Pietari Inkinen, extensively reviewed here and not always favourably (Naxos 8.572305Naxos 8.572704; Naxos 8.572227; Naxos 8.572705; Naxos 8.570068; Naxos 8.570763). Sakari may be better recorded but Leaper is more consistently gripping.
Naxos Historical now turn for the first time to the 1930s HMV 78s and choose their most eminent audio restoration engineer for the task: Mark Obert-Thorn. This is the first of four volumes, three will present Kajanus’s complete Sibelius Society output; would that Finnish Radio had air-time recordings of the other symphonies. A fourth disc is intended with the premiere recordings of No. 4 (Stokowski), No. 6 (Schneevoigt) and No. 7 (Koussevitsky). These are old friends in one format or another - some will recall their appearance on World Record Club and on Koch International - but they have never been issued in such a freshly methodical way.
Kajanus (1856-1933) was a composer himself (Bis) but unselfishly championed his younger ‘competitor’. He recognised that here was something of long-lasting genius. His Sibelius First Symphony is a thing of wildness and lulling beauty; nothing hum-drum here. The sleepy and extravagantly leisurely caress of the Andante contrasts with the possessed rhythms and cliff-edge drama of the finale and first movement. The mono analogue sound is handled honestly which means you will be struck at first by the rustle of the surfaces. This is prominent at first given the reflective and whispered musing in the opening Andante episode of the first movement but is soon subsumed by the experience of the music. Detail such as the ticking harp barbs in the grand romantic flow of the finale is remarkably present for a historical recording. Kajanus is similarly gripping in Pohjola’s Daughter (Pohjolan tytär) which bristles with imagination. Nothing is done in overdrive – listen to those insistent wailing strings at 7:30 and note the microscopically sculpted flexing of the tempo; likewise in the falling away at 9:25-9:35. For a full cholesterol version go for Horst Stein and the Suisse Romande orchestra on Decca and still awaiting a really full frontal transfer. Also well worth hearing is that great Sibelian, Eugene Ormandy’s mono Columbia recording from the 1950s (Pristine, unmissable). Only in Tapiola is there, just once or twice, a slight slackening of the tension: early on I thought that the little snow-devil whiplash flute figures were a bit ordinary. While a rung down from Van Beinum it’s still very special: I relished the four-blow drum tolling beneath the sleepy self-hypnotic the strings at 1:58 onwards. This Tapiola mostly enjoys the quietest surfaces – allow for a largely suppressed cyclical hushing from around 7:42.
So yet again we benefit from Mark Obert-Thorn’s lavish and meticulous attention to detail. His notes tell us he had the luxury of five sets of 78s of the First Symphony to work with. Luxury, yes, but imagine the intricacy of choices to be made and the time commitment in making them track by track and moment by moment. The more than capable notes are by Colin Anderson.
From the Naxos stable and for those who have developed as taste for ‘remote’ time travel try the Sibelius Beecham collection and also the Koussevitsky.
True Sibelians will want the present disc alongside others from Divine Art – reflecting a more interventionist approach by Andrew Rose and Historic Recordings’ technically unadorned and valuable portrait of the Schneevoigt legacy.
This will reward any listener and recreates for today’s listeners how the West discovered Sibelius.
  Rob Barnett
This will reward any listener and recreates for today’s listeners how the West discovered Sibelius.