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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Historical Recordings and Rarities 1928-1948
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 605317 [7 CDs: 8:34:36]

In the 1930s the Columbia Gramophone Company (later EMI) undertook a subscription series of the major works of Jean Sibelius, initially funded by the Finnish government. This is the first time that all the orchestral recordings made for EMI Classics' Sibelius project between 1930 and 1940 have been gathered together (six CDs in all). Warner has added a seventh CD devoted to chamber music and songs. The most important recordings, those of the symphonies and tone poems from Kajanus, Schnéevoigt and Beecham, have been available before and are mostly still available on other labels. The seven CDs are in cardboard sleeves, each with the work listings, timings and recording data printed on the back. There is a multi-lingual booklet with a four-page essay by Robert Layton, but no texts or translations for Luonnotar or the five songs. The box is inexpensive, the transfers are successful, and the performances are still among the most important of any.

Robert Kajanus was hardly less significant than Sibelius himself in the creation of the Finnish orchestral tradition that has led to a succession of fine conductors coming from Finland ever since. Kajanus founded the Helsinki Philharmonic and led them for fifty years, was a close friend of Sibelius and his personal choice for the recording of these works. He set down these definitive versions of symphonies 1, 2, 3 and 5, the outer movements from the Karelia Suite, Pohjola’s Daughter, Belshazzar’s Feast and Tapiola. He died in 1933 and other conductors took up the baton for the EMI series, but these are still among the best of all the versions of these particular works. From the opening clarinet solo of the First Symphony to the final chord of Tapiola, his conducting exudes idiomatic authority. The symphonies have an impetus which has become rare, transitions — so crucial in these works — which sound inevitable because almost imperceptible, and a feeling of nobility - especially in No.5 - that has formed our image of the composer ever since.

Kajanus at some points uses more rubato than we hear now, in keeping with the conducting style of the day. He also tends still to be among the swiftest on disc, even after so many subsequent rivals have had the chance to learn from him. Osmo Vänskä, when asked in an interview about his own swift tempi for the First Symphony, said of the finale “It’s crotchet = 104, but no one takes it that fast apart from Kajanus … Sibelius lived long enough to have changed his mind if he felt it was wrong.” As for the Fifth Symphony, I don’t know a modern version which gets it under the half hour as Kajanus does, but Saraste’s and Vänskä’s four versions get close. The point is that despite these Kajanus timings, the works never sound rushed, despite occasional evidence that the players in the 1930s found them a challenge. The tone poems have the same dramatic qualities, Pohjola’s Daughter is treated with great narrative flair, and Tapiola is a terrifying evocation of the forest god - don’t listen to it on an iPod when walking in the woods. Following that on disc 3 we have three more short works in the hands of the then newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra and the young Dr. Adrian Boult, who played a lot of Sibelius together at the time. They offer in particular an impressive account of the still rather neglected Night Ride and Sunrise.

The Fourth Symphony is in the hands of Beecham and the LPO, a famous recording for which Beecham and producer Walter Legge consulted the composer on various points, including the sanction of a glockenspiel rather than tubular bells in the finale - where the score’s “Glocken.” is ambiguous. Sibelius was more than happy with the result, perhaps because Beecham never saw the work as austere but rather as deeply romantic. Certainly it is very expressive throughout and especially in the haunting slow movement. Haunting is the word too for the enigmatic and most elusive of all the tone poems, The Bard. The suites of incidental music from The Tempest and Pelléas et Mélisande remind us both what a fine theatre composer Sibelius was, and that Beecham was a notable theatre conductor. Beecham recordings also fill disc 6, not least with a stirring En Saga. The main work there though is the Violin Concerto with Heifetz, a benchmark recording for its dazzling virtuosity and romantic flair. Some have felt it lacks mystery in the more introspective moments and prefer Heifetz’s stereo remake in Chicago for that reason, but this is the recording that really established the popularity of the work, and you can hear why.

Sibelius never gave permission for the live performance of Luonnotar that opens disc 5 to be issued. Perhaps he disliked the very broad phrasing by the soprano of the opening lines, which rather impedes progress. If her very taxing part is not always quite securely sung, the voice is imposing and well caught, and the feeling, once past those opening phrases, has all the strangeness this Kalevala creation myth requires. This is with the Helsinki Philharmonic under Georg Schnéevoigt, Kajanus’s successor, who also conducts the Sixth Symphony with as much dedication as his predecessor brought to the earlier symphonies. The playing reveals the standards the Helsinki Orchestra had achieved. Then it is back to the BBC Symphony and the legendary pioneering recording of the Seventh Symphony under Serge Koussevitsky, which in the view of those who know it has never been surpassed. It is a live performance of riveting intensity, as well as a reminder that along with the US and the UK, Sibelius’s strongest overseas performance tradition has been among Russians – Mravinsky and Rozhdestvensky also recorded outstanding interpretations of the Seventh.

The last disc is of non-orchestral repertoire, mostly a group of delightful miniatures for violin and piano along with five of the composer’s many songs. These all have the slight air of period pieces — in the way the big orchestral works do not — and one can imagine hearing them in a soirée at Ainola, the Sibelius family’s rural home, perhaps with the composer at the piano. The most significant item here by far is a 1933 recording of Sibelius’s only mature string quartet, Voces intimae. Providing those ‘intimate voices’ is the Budapest Quartet (Bibbulph LAB098), in a very persuasive performance of a work that needs real understanding to come across well. They are very observant of the score and cited as a touchstone in the essay on Sibelius on record in the Cambridge Companion to Sibelius (2004).

Most of the essential orchestral recordings are also available on Naxos in excellent transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn (8.111393; 8.111394; 8.111395), but this Warner box is very generous in scope, and also has very good transfers that sound full and surprisingly detailed. There is one more significant item here – the gorgeous Andante Festivo, in the only example we have of Sibelius conducting. Allowances have to be made for 1930s sound and there is some distortion in the loudest moments, but the performances are often so absorbing it is easy enough to adjust. The Sibelius anniversary year will doubtless produce more glamorous and more lauded issues than this one, but none more revealing or more essential. Many a music-lover in the 1930s and 1940s will have got to know Sibelius’s music through these versions. We have here an orchestral performing tradition in the making, at a time when the music was still new. This set allows us to hear modern music in the very process of becoming core repertoire. It is the classical record industry not only documenting the canon, but also creating it.

Roy Westbrook
 
Content List
 
CD 1 [74:22]
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43;
Orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society/Robert Kajanus

CD 2 [77:08]
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 (No.1 Intermezzo, No.3 Alla Marcia)
Orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society/Robert Kajanus
March of the Finnish Jaeger Battalion, Op. 91a
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Robert Kajanus
Andante festivo, JS34b
Finnish Radio Orchestra/Jean Sibelius

CD 3 [73:21]
Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49
Belshazzar's Feast Suite, Op. 51
Tapiola Op.112,
London Symphony Orchestra/Robert Kajanus;
Night Ride and Sunrise, Op.55
The Oceanides, Op.73
Romance in C Op.42,
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult

CD 4 [79:07]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63
The Bard, Op. 64
The Tempest, Op. 109 (Prelude and Suites 1 and 2);
Pelléas and Mélisande Suite, Op. 46: IV; A Spring in the Park, VIII; Entr'acte, IX; Death of Mélisande.
In memoriam, funeral march Op. 59
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham

CD 5 [67:44]
Luonnotar, Op. 70 (Text: Kalevala)
Helmi Liukkonen (soprano)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Schnéevoigt
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Schnéevoigt
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
live recording
King Kristian II, incidental music, Op. 27
Stockholm Opera House Orchestra/Armas Järnefelt

CD 6 [75:39]
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
En Saga, Op. 9
Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22: Lemminkäinen's Return (No. 4)
Festivo, Op. 25 No. 3
Finlandia, Op. 26
Valse Triste, Op. 44 No. 1
Jascha Heifetz (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Karelia Suite, Op.11, No.1 Intermezzo
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham

CD 7
[67:15]
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56 'Voces Intimae'
Budapest String Quartet
Romance in F major, from Four Pieces, Op. 78, for cello and piano
Emil Telmányi (violin), Gerald Moore (piano)
Danse champêtre, Op. 106 No. 2
Emil Telmányi (violin), Gerald Moore (piano)
Danse champêtre, Op. 106 No. 1
Emil Telmányi (violin), Georg Vásárhelyi (piano)
Mazurka, Op. 81/1
Anja Ignatius (violin), Timo Makkila (piano)
Four Pieces, Op. 115 No. 1 'Auf dem Herde'
Anja Ignatius (violin), Timo Makkila (piano)
Malinconia, Op. 20
Louis Jensen (cello), Galina Werschenskaya (piano)
Romance in D flat major, Op. 24, No. 9
Eileen Joyce (piano)
Säf, säf, susa, Op. 36 No. 4 (Text: Gustav Fröding)
Marian Anderson (contralto), Kosti Vehanen (piano)
Flickan kom från sin älsklings möte, Op. 37, No. 5
Marian Anderson (contralto), Kosti Vehanen (piano)
Kom nu hit, Död, Op. 60 No. 1 (Bertel Gripenberg after Shakespeare)
Marian Anderson (contralto), Kosti Vehanen (piano)
Långsamt som qvällskyn, Op. 61 No. 1 (Tavaststjerna)
Marian Anderson (contralto), Kosti Vehanen (piano)

 

 




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