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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Finlandia, Op 26 [6:50]
The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 No. 2 [8:33]
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 [28:05]
Valse Triste, Op. 44 No. 1 [4:29]
Berceuse, Op. 109, No. 8 [2:36]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 [22:01]*
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra, All-American Youth Orchestra*/Leopold Stokowski
rec. 1929-1940
Concerto & symphony previously unpublished*
GUILD GHCD2428 [73:22]

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) is a conductor well-served on CD, with a steady stream of new material, both live and studio, elbowing its way into the catalogue. Pristine Audio and Music and Arts have made some notable contributions of late. Likewise, Guild are meeting demand with some impressive releases that have been favourably reviewed here. As a tribute to mark the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth in 1865, the Swiss label has recently issued this disc containing performances recorded by Stokowski between 1929 and 1940. The highlight must surely be a previously unpublished recording of the Violin Concerto with Jascha Heifetz.

In the 1920s and 1930s Stokowski was something of a champion of Sibelius, an advocacy likewise shared by Frederick Stock and Serge Koussevitsky (review). At the time, he had made quite a name for himself in Philadelphia, a post he had held since 1912, and had gained international recognition. Yet, of the three conductors, he led the way in promoting the composer, premiering his last three symphonies with the Philadelphians. Sibelius became an integral part of his repertoire, once the electrical recording era had taken a foothold. The earliest foray into the Sibelian oeuvre was his 1929 recording of The Swan of Tuonela; it was the work’s first ever recording. By all accounts, the sessions were hurriedly assembled. Marcel Tabuteau, the principal oboist was given a day’s notice to borrow a cor anglais and learn the part. The result can be heard here. Stokowski coaxes some magical playing from the orchestra in what is a truly captivating performance. Tabuteau’s mournful depiction of the mythical swan gliding around Tuonela, the island of the dead is particularly alluring.

The previously unreleased Violin Concerto from 24 December 1934, has particular value in that it was the only time Heifetz and Stokowski collaborated. Quite why the violinist refused to allow its issue remains a mystery, and maybe this sealed the fate of any further association between the two. A year later, Heifetz recorded the Concerto with Sir Thomas Beecham for HMV (review) – a recording that, to my knowledge, has never been out of the catalogue. Many of the violinist’s trademarks inform the performance. He constantly drives forward, keeping up the momentum. You get the impression, for instance at 2:48 in the slow movement, that Stokowski is trying to pull back the tempo and restore some sort of equilibrium. Maybe this, in the violinist’s mind, was a lack of a shared vision. Then there’s the flawless technique, immaculate intonation and achievement of an infinite variety of tone colour. The propulsive finale is exciting and spectacular, Heifetz’s peerless technical equipment very much in evidence. The release is worth buying for the Concerto alone.

The Seventh Symphony we have here from 22 September 1940 is Stokowski’s only studio recording of the work. It was the second recording of the Symphony, the first being a live version with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky (review) set down in May 1933. The orchestra is the All-American Youth Orchestra, formed by Stokowski when his contract with the Philadelphians expired in 1940; it was made up of players aged 18-25, and was short-lived. In December 1941, America entered the war, and the young men became eligible for military service, however, they did make some recordings before they disbanded. The performance here is nicely paced, and is underpinned by a distinctive rawness and grandeur. The strings are subtle and flexible, with Stokowski instinctively shaping the lines. Throughout he keeps a tight rein on this one movement structure, enabling it to unfold naturally. Guild have also issued a live recording of the Seventh with Stokowski from Helsinki, 17 June 1953 (GHCD2341 - review). I haven’t heard it to compare.

Finlandia from April 1930 is taken on a brisk outing, full of energy and vigour. The short Valse Triste and Berceuse are welcome additions, both given lyrically shaped and well-managed readings.

Stephen Greenbank

 

 




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