Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Eugene Ormandy conducts Sibelius
Dylana Jenson (violin); Isaac Stern (violin)
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. 1957-77, various venues in Philadelphia. ADD
RCA RED SEAL 88875 108582 [8 CDs: 8:39:13]
This is an inexpensive set issued in 2015 in the midst of a flurry of Sibelius boxes released to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth. Its essence lies in "Sibelius conducted by Ormandy" but that's only part of the story.
The box includes the first generally accessible systematic presentation on CD of the Sibelius recordings Ormandy made with the Philadelphia for RCA in the 1970s. There have been very few CD reissues of these sessions which originally appeared on individual vinyl albums. Those few silver disc reissues comprise RCA Navigators of Symphonies 2 and 1/5 which came out in the late 1990s. There has been nothing like this; nothing so close to all-embracing.
Unlike the other 'big' 150-year sets — Warner, Decca (Great Performances, 4788589), DG (Sibelius Edition 4795102), Bis (13 volumes) — this one does not give you the complete symphonies. Of the obviously 'missing' numbered symphonies Ormandy (1899-1985) is reputed to have said: "The Third and Sixth remain enigmas, as far as I am concerned." He was not alone in this. Their absence might be one reason why those 1970s RCAs remained pretty much shelf-bound after the LPs disappeared under the unstoppable CD onslaught that began in the 1980s. Only now does redress come from Sony who draw in recordings from the late 1950s and into the 1960s for CBS and place these alongside the late harvest from RCA. This means that if you also want to hear his fiery-monumental mono Sibelius efforts of the years 1930-55 you will need to go to Pristine and hear their glorious resurrection work (review review review). Pristine deal admirably with the 'before' but if you want the 'after' then you have an option. His spectacularly recorded 1978 Philadelphia Lemminkäinen Suite can be found - if you can track it down - on a now deleted EMI reissue (review). Warner do not seem to have realised what a treasure they have in that recording. That glorious Lemminkäinen Suite underscores how sad it was that Ormandy appears never to have had any interest in the Kullervo Symphony.
Ormandy succeeded another doughty Sibelian, Leopold Stokowski, as Philadelphia music director when the 'golden child' departed the city's orchestra in the 1930s. Ormandy remained with them until his retirement 44 years later. Sibelius had already been included in Ormandy's Minneapolis period: Symphony No. 1 in 1935. There is at least one other recording of Symphony No. 1 that pre-dates the two in this set. It's from Philadelphia in 1941 and can be heard on Biddulph WHL062. Everything in this box was recorded after Sibelius's death and is stereo analogue.
There are no notes at all. That's typical of these Sony-RCA 'Masters' series boxes. I wouldn't bewail that aspect too strongly; it's not as if these are unknown or undocumented works. Mind you, I would have been even more pleased if there had been a substantial essay and masses of session photographs but it was not to be. Each sleeve inside the card wallet sets out work titles, movement minutiae, artists, session details in quite small print, durations and total playing time — that's it. What is the absence of essay background in the face of such often fine and in some cases rare music-making? As for the price, it is £22.50. I have seen it for less.
This is a neat package although frustrating for those who already have everything apart from the 1970s recordings. I read that in 2004 there were Japanese CDs of the elusive 1970s Sibelius recordings and that they were superbly documented; I‘m not sure if the notes were in English though. Short of finding that set any dedicated Sibelian has no choice but to grit his or her teeth and get this far from expensive volume. For such people there is going to be duplication and the set has repeats inbuilt with three Finlandias (two with choir), two each of symphonies 1, 2 and 7, and pairs of many of the other shorter works.
CD 1 is short on playing time at 41:52. This is an emphatically driven First Symphony recorded in 1978. There's a muscular thrust to Ormandy's rhythmic definition with great acuity and sharply stencilled power; the Furies drive. It can be compared with the 1941 mono version which is even faster at 35.48.
CD 2 [67:56] presents a very good if not spectacular Second Symphony. The sound feels open and there's an entirely fitting throbbing power to the strings in the finale. The bass line at the end is indomitably grounded. John Quinn enjoyed this recording when it was revived by HDTT not so long ago. The Second is coupled with Valse Triste with less velour to the strings than Ormandy found in 1959 and a more pacy tempo. The Swan of Tuonela rings out with an impressive sense of occasion but this Finlandia while good does not score over the 1968 version on CD 8. Its bite is soft and those jagged contours are not rapped out with enough vehemence. On the other hand the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who are allocated words not approved by Sibelius, sing with red heat and storming fervour.
CD 3 [79:49] is a medium for Ormandy's mid-1970s sessions. Symphony No. 4 is the most enigmatic and least crowd-pleasing of the seven. It is well done: caringly cosseted with cool shadings and shivering passion. Pristine offer us the same work in mono from the 1950s. Pohjola's Daughter is the most fantastic of the composer's tone poems and also one of the most symphonic in its sense and outline. What is on offer here is a more expansive, more relaxed, Ormandy: 13:01 against 11:50 in the 1950s. The Oceanides also takes a more meditative approach; too much so. It is less crisp and has a more impressionistic wash. The Symphony No. 7 takes 23:42 by contrast with 22:34 in the 1950s. Ormandy stands at the opposite pole from the violently pressed forward Paul van Kempen whose ancient Telefunken LP carries the fastest ever Seventh at 16:00. This 1970s Seventh is as cool and laid back as the commercial EMI Beecham. The Ormandy is not going to dent the extraordinary Mravinsky version from 1965. The latter remains one of the great and most possessed documents of the last century.
CD 4 [71:58] again derives from the 1975-76 sessions. I was at first undecided about this Fifth Symphony. At first it feels hands-off but soon becomes respectably tense, even indomitable. Note the joyous forward drive at 7:44 in the first movement. At other points there's a relished deliberation about this performance. Magic is there, especially in Ormandy's solicitous attention to the expressive power of the violins. He seeks out the pulse and will not disengage. His En Saga is full of many engagingly poised and almost fragile solos. There are some nice brass barks at 14:02 and a lovely drowsy clarinet 16:30 - magical stuff. It's not as feral or as whirlwind as Horst Stein (Decca), Furtwängler (Music & Arts) or Toscanini (also M&A) but it certainly works. The Tapiola is ideally pointed and does a nice line in spiky fury although it is not up there with Van Beinum on Decca Eloquence.
CD 5 [57:53] is a mixed bag but starts strongly with a recording which I confess I was initially prejudiced against; a reaction against the hyper-glamorous marketing when the LP was first issued. . Dylana Jenson's Violin Concerto made a splash in the early 1980s. It followed her 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition medal and a live performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto released on Melodiya (has anyone got that?). I read that Jenson's 1981 LP was RCA's first major classical music production recorded in digital sound. She gives a growling ursine performance and is treated to a decent balance which reports lots of detail beyond the glamorous solo line. I rate this highly in the same league as Ida Haendel (EMI), Julian Rachlin (Sony and recently reaffirmed by his appearance at the 2015 Proms), Efrem Zimbalist and my overall favourite, David Oistrakh (Melodiya). She has recorded the Goldmark concerto on a rare two-CD set with the Grand Rapids SO and the Tchaikovsky for the Polish company Muza. We should have heard more from her. A profile of Jenson can be found here. After the Concerto there's an outrageously sluggish 1977 Karelia Overture. It cannot be redeemed despite being resonantly recorded. Alexander Gibson took only 7:25 when he recorded this piece in the 1960s and Ormandy takes 10:18. The 1975 Karelia Suite is much better but it still lacks that electric hum you hear in the last CD in this set from 1968. It feels casual, too familiar, too practised.
CD 6 [39:41] spoils the Ormandy-inclined Sibelian with yet another strong account of the First Symphony. This is from 1962. There's more hiss but also more sheer beef to a sound-picture that fills the room. It's quicker too. Those string tremolos have a shade more urgency - just a shade. There's a stronger surge and swell. In the finale the ire-filled trumpets 'outgrabe' with stinging malevolence. Ormandy lets in more of a cooling breeze here in his 1978 version but this one gives the impression that he and his orchestra are possessed - that they simply cannot help themselves. The final harp notes speak of bittersweet bardic fulfilment. It's a pretty brilliant recording for its age and serves up a surprising depth of detail. The CBS engineers outpoint their RCA brethren working 16 years later. After the First Symphony comes Stern's Violin Concerto from 1969. This is fibrous, intense and heated music-making but I would opt for the striking Jenson performance and recording. It's intriguing that this set has turned its back on another Ormandy-Philadelphia project: Oistrakh from 1959. Stern is neither so etched nor so full-lipped as the CBS Oistrakh.
CD 7 carries the same CBS/Sony recordings (1957-60) of Symphonies 2 and 7 that I reviewed enthusiastically in 2002. I have no reason to change my conclusions. This version of Symphony No. 2, recorded in the year of Sibelius's death and not long after Ormandy's pilgrimage to Järvenpää, is frankly wonderful. String tone is generous, open, natural. The woodwind is very idiosyncratic; at 2.20 in the Tempo Andante it has harmonium overtones suggestive of the instrument for which several of the composer's domestic juvenilia were written. This is a very good and extremely imaginative version. The orchestra is on great form - try little details like the ever-entwining flutes at the end of the Vivacissimo. I have never heard those flutes played with such seeming defiance of the human limitations of breath. This comes into play again at 10.35 in the Allegro Moderato.
The Seventh Symphony is a much tauter and more intense document than the contemporaneous EMI Beecham recording. Ormandy dives in, holding up to the light so much more drama, skirmish and chilly seduction than one often finds in a work that is all too prone to soft-contoured unemphatic readings. Ormandy is having none of that. What we get is a performance that could easily have been the model for Mravinsky's Melodiya in Moscow in 1965. The trombone is more couth of tone and the strings do not have that balsamic tight-throated desperation that the Leningraders have but there are many surprising similarities looking at the two recordings across the gulf of the Cold War.
CD 8 [64:12] mops up various 1959-68 recordings. This is a very fine 1968 Finlandia - a work that labours under its popularity. A snarl and a half to the brass might suggest Horst Stein must have learnt something from Ormandy. It's rich in romantic potency and imbues it with dramatic tension. There's a fierce steely glint to the strings at 4:03 and when the music becomes poundingly emphatic the emotion is laid on with a very large builder's shovel. A sense of crashing occasion at times verges on brow-beating. This is followed by a 1959 Valse Triste with super-plush strings. The smooth 1960 Swan of Tuonela is affectionate and poised but cannot match the power of the Mravinsky or a very much left-field starry Morton Gould on HDTT. Ormandy's Karelia Suite from 1968 is jolly and full of verve. The 1963 En Saga favours excitingly rapid tempi at just short of 17 minutes; compare with Ole Schmidt at 18 minutes and Van Beinum at 19 minutes. Solos are closely miked, as at 9:30. This is all very agreeable but is not something one would hear in the concert hall. The emotions are extremely well done and everything is nicely shaded and flecked. The whirlwind climax makes quite an impact; it's just a shame that the French horns are recessed in favour the violin driven gale (12:50). However, these string players are mightily impressive. When they pounce en masse there's no smudging. The balance shifts emphatically to the strings in the last four minutes with solo woodwind taking a recessed seat. This feels unusual but holds the attention. The last work to be heard on this disc is the 1959 Finlandia. This delivers a more open natural sound to brass. They feel less colossal but there's a shade of the casual about it. What marks it out is that the hymn section is sung by the choir; there is no choir in the first version on this disc.
Ormandy was a great Sibelius conductor. He is caught at his peak here and also at other less impressive moments. If you are a serious Sibelius-Ormandy enthusiast you also need to seek out Pristine's three discs as well as his 1978 Lemminkäinen Suite.
CD 1 [41:52]
Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39 [41:49]
CD 2 [67:56]
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 [44:39]
Valse Triste [4:12]
The Swan of Tuonela [9:52]
Finlandia, Op. 26 [8:56]
CD 3 [79:49]
Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63 [32:13]
Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49 [13:01]
The Oceanides, Op. 73 [10:30]
Symphony No. 7, Op. 105 
CD 4 [71:58]
Symphony No. 5, Op. 82 [33:38]
En Saga, Op. 9 [18:09]
Tapiola, Op. 112 [19:55]
CD 5 [57:53]
Violin Concerto in D Minor [32:12] (Dylana Jenson, violin); Karelia Overture Op. 10 [10:19]
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 [15:07]
CD 6 [69:01]
Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39 [39:41]
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 [29:14] (Isaac Stern, violin)
CD 7 [66:32]
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 [43:48]
Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 [22:34]
CD 8 [64:12]
Finlandia - Tone Poem, Op. 26 [8:24]
Valse Triste [4:53]
The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 No. 2 [9:53]
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 [15:09]
En Saga, Op. 9 [16:57]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (with choir) [8:23]
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