Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 43 [42.17]
Romance in C major, Op. 42 [5.56]
Symphony No 5 in E flat major, Op.82 [29.05]
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 [29.41]
Tapiola, Op. 112 [16.00]
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 [14.55]
Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 3 8.03
Lemminkainen’s Return, Op. 22, No. 4 [6.17]
Tossy Spivakovsky (violin)
Leonard Brain (cor anglais) (Swan)
Sinfonia of London/Tauno Hannikainen (symphonies, Karelia)
London Symphony Orchestra/Tauno Hannikainen (Concerto, Tapiola)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Anthony Collins (romance, Swan)
Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sixten Ehrling (Lemminkainen)
rec. 1959 (Hannikainen - stereo), 1957 (Collins - mono) and 1952 (Ehrling - mono)
MAGDALEN METCD8024 [77.29 + 75.19]
I was looking forward to getting to know Tauno Hannikainen’s Sibelius recordings again having not listened to them for several years. They were all critically acclaimed when they were first issued and Magdalen has used World Record Club (WRC) pressings for their transfers. The Symphonies and Karelia Suite were originally recorded by World Record Club using their regular “house band” and have previously been reissued on vinyl as HMV Concert Classics (Symphony No.5), Classics for Pleasure (Symphony No.2) and then coupled together on a Seraphim double CD set. The WRC LP of the Violin Concerto and Tapiola features original Everest recordings issued under licence by WRC and made available some years later on budget Everest LPs (horrid pressings). They later appeared on CD, transferred from the original 35mm master tapes. These CD incarnations were superb.
Tauno Hannikainen was one of Sibelius’ favourite interpreters and was given the honour of conducting the music at Sibelius’ funeral. On the basis that he performed this music while the composer was still alive many people jumped to the conclusion that his recordings are somehow authentic. Indeed, there was a time when it was thought that Finnish conductors brought a special insight into the music of Sibelius that was lacking in those born in other countries. As an admirer of the complete symphony cycles given to us by the likes of Colin Davis, Collins and Barbirolli I don’t hold this view. Having said that, there is no denying that there is a special atmosphere conjured up by Hannikainen. Whether this is anything to do with him being a Finn I will leave to others to decide. It should be remembered that when Hannikainen was in the studio the world wasn’t exactly awash with recordings of the Sibelius symphonies. This lack of competition may have resulted in his LPs being given rave reviews in some quarters. Maybe the cult status he was afforded was going over the top.
Symphony No.2 does possess a peculiar magnetism that grips the listener. The close, boxy but warm recording is highly involving and the individual strands in the first section of the first movement are set out very clearly. The stops and starts in Sibelius’ material are exaggerated by the conductor but the central climax is as good as any on disc. Nowhere else do you hear those violin trills producing such a thrilling frisson. The Hannikainen approach throughout the work is one of cool detachment. There’s no obvious “interpretation” going on and on that basis he does get to the core of the music. The slow movement is stark - maybe just the way Sibelius intended it? - and it’s only in the finale that you get any spirit of romanticism. The lack of flow and forward momentum is offset by extraordinary clarity. The final climax is monumental but please be warned - Hannikainen instructs his timp player to play off the beat in the final bars. The orchestral playing in general is erratic with a couple of howlers from the brass and moments of less than perfect ensemble elsewhere but no matter - as an overall conception this is still a superb, atmospheric and tough-sounding Sibelius 2. The phrase “Rough but Authentic” springs to mind.
Symphony No.5 finds the orchestra in a more flattering acoustic and in much better form. The conductor’s view, in line with Symphony No.2, is as unromantic, cool and matter of fact as you could imagine. Under Hannikainen's direction the gear-changes, so often a downfall in this symphony, are as smooth as could be and the control is most impressive. The great horn theme in the finale will come as something of a shock or disappointment to some. It lacks glow or romantic lilt but the detachment does have a strange appeal. With so many performances in this oft-recorded symphony being heavily romanticised this is a very refreshing change. The recording quality is spacious, detailed and less studio-bound than that given to Symphony No.2. The original coupling for Symphony No.5, the Karelia Suite, is suitably jaunty with an opening Intermezzo taken at one heck of a pace and concluding with a lively Alla Marcia. The Sinfonia of London players sound as if they are enjoying themselves after their gaunt, stressful reading of symphony.
Tapiola and Tossy Spivakovsky's account of the Violin Concerto constitute one of Everest’s finest releases. Hannikainen gives a detached reading of Tapiola - no surprises here - and the tense, brooding atmosphere he generates is spine-tingling. He strikes me as being an unfussy conductor who allows the music to make its mark without too much intervention. Tapiola should chill the blood. This version does just that. The LSO, despite a rare lapse in the woodwind section that should have been corrected, give us one the best Tapiolas ever committed to disc. Spivakovsky’s version of the Violin Concerto is erratic, original and very special indeed. The opening theme of the first movement is magical and Spivakovsky sets the tone for a performance that never sags. Without doubt this is due in part to the accompaniment given to him by Hannikainen and the LSO. The violin image is small-toned but set well forward and every note - and occasional slip - is captured with great presence. The LSO play with great distinction and the balance between orchestra and soloist is just right. Don’t expect impeccable playing from Spivakovsky. Some of the sul G playing is on the sharp side and the opening of the last movement is not very secure rhythmically. These passing criticisms are of no import. What you get is an overall performance that sounds absolutely idiomatic. There are more polished versions around but this one simply has to be heard and it’s worth the cost of the set alone. The fillers are just that - nice bonuses, nothing more, nothing less. You should buy this set to experience Hannikainen and Spivakovsky.
Being in a position to listen to several LP and CD incarnations of these Hannikainen recordings in order to make comparisons with the Magdalen set I must add a little caution. The transfer of Symphony No.2 has an uncomfortable, washed-out string sound. This bears little resemblance to the WRC LP or Seraphim CD. By attempting to reduce hiss and distortion the string tone has been severely compromised. Despite the clicks and pops my LP sounds superior. Magdalen’s transfer has an artificial “digital” top end that I find unappealing. The string tone comes and goes. The rest of the programme doesn’t suffer from this to such an extent and the transfers are generally successful. Symphony No.5 and Karelia sound much more like the LPs. The Everest transfers sound very good indeed. Bear in mind that these are LP transfers and there is some residual background noise and end of side distortion. In summary, try to dig out the deleted Seraphim and Everest CDs if you can get hold of them. If not, give this a try. Magdalen should be applauded for bringing these classic recordings back into the public domain.
Idiomatic and erratic Sibelius from a great Sibelius interpreter.
Masterwork Index: Sibelius Symphony 2 ~~ Symphony 5 ~~ Violin concerto
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