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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
New York Memorial Concert, 1957
Jussi Björling (tenor)
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Martti Similä
London Symphony Orchestra/Øivin Fjeldstad
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, 8 December 1957 (live); Kingsway Hall, London, 10-15 February 1958
Ambient Stereo/Stereo (Flagstad recordings)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC518 [61:23+67:17]

The New York concert, which forms all of CD 1 and part of the second disc also, was given to honour Sibelius who had died on 20 September 1957. By an adroit piece of scheduling, the date chosen for the concert, 8 December, was the composer’s birthday. On the rostrum was the Finnish conductor, Martti Similä, who was born in 1898 and, we learn from the notes, was a close friend of Sibelius. He served as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic (1945-1951) and then held a similar post with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (1951-57). Sadly, he died on 9 January 1958, just a few weeks after this New York concert took place.

I’d like, though, to begin at the end, as it were. The New York concert provided too much material for a single CD so Pristine have added as a generous filler fourteen songs by Sibelius, all in orchestral dress, recorded for Decca early in 1958 by Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962). The great Norwegian soprano was 62 at the time these recordings were made. As we are reminded in the notes, it was John Culshaw who persuaded her to make these recordings after she had severered a near twenty-year association with RCA Victor in 1954. Later in 1958 would come the most celebrated flowering of that Indian summer in the recording studio, her performance as Fricka in Das Rheingold, the first instalment of the Decca ‘Ring’ Here, however, Flagstad shows us why Culshaw was so keen to put her in front of the microphones. Reviewing the Decca Eloquence reissue of these Sibelius performances back in 2010, my colleague Göran Forsling said: “The orchestral songs with the ever reliable Øivin Fjeldstad as conductor are a joy to hear.” How right he is – and how interesting it has been to compare Flagstad’s singing of these songs with the approach of Jussi Björling, all five of whose selections also were sung by Flagstad.

I began my listening by comparing the Flagstad performances in their Pristine and Eloquence incarnations. Doing an A/B comparison of individual songs, always starting with the Pristine, I was struck at once by the difference between the two. Played at the same volume setting, the Eloquence is brighter and evidently transferred at a higher level. A very small amount of background noise was audible but I’m sure I could have eliminated that had I chosen to reduce the volume level: however, I wanted to be consistent and the Pristine transfer is the one with which I found I was more comfortable. Andrew Rose’s transfer might be described as more restrained than the Eloquence version but there’s no loss of detail in the Pristine transfer and Flagstad’s voice still rings out splendidly, for example in Var det en dröm? Listening to both transfers, it seemed to me that the 60-year-old recording wears its years pretty lightly, which in itself is a tribute to Culshaw and the Decca engineers, not forgetting the much-missed acoustic of the Kingsway Hall. You can hear Flagstad’s voice in all its splendour and a satisfying amount of orchestral detail comes through. These are vivid, characterful performances by a truly great singer and she’s expertly accompanied. The Decca Eloquence transfer is very good but my own preference is for the new Pristine. Decca’s stereo recording has been transferred, Pristine tell us “from immaculate vinyl… requiring minimal restoration.”

The Carnegie Hall concert was recorded in mono but is here presented in ambient stereo. Inevitably, I suppose, the sound isn’t quite as good as Decca’s studio production but actually it’s pretty good. I learned from the Pristine website that these performances, which haven’t been released before, were recorded by Carnegie Hall’s in-house recording team, though not, it seems, for broadcast. Andrew Rose acquired the recordings from a US collector and it’s his understanding that the recordings were originally preserved on acetate discs, later dubbed onto tape. His XR transfers strike me as eminently successful.

He believes that Jussi Björling had his own microphone. Certainly, the singer’s voice comes through with unusual presence although the orchestra is not masked. Björling, who regularly performed these songs, we are told, is in terrific voice, as we can tell from the first song, Säv, säv, susa. He sings this song with fine feeling. Flagstad is gentler at the start though later she matches the Swedish tenor for ardour. Both of them bring off the poetic ending very well. Björling delivers Flickan kom with heroic timbre; his interpretation is very dramatic and involving. Interestingly, Flagstad takes the song at a slightly swifter speed though she’s no less heartfelt. In Var det en dröm? Björling’s singing is wonderfully open-throated; he’s very expressive and passionate. Svarta rosor is thrilling, especially the top notes, which remind us, if we needed reminding, that we have a top-ranking singer of Italian opera here. Flagstad, perhaps unsurprisingly, adopts a less theatrical approach; her heart is less obviously worn on the sleeve and, once again, she opts for a slightly quicker tempo. Finally, Björling gives us Demanten på marssnön which he introduces very briefly in English. Again, he sings the song in a very operatic, expressive way. I’ve drawn the comparison with Flagstad simply because Pristine afford us the opportunity to do so and not to imply that one singer is “better” in these songs: both, in their different ways, are compelling. How wonderful it is to have the opportunity to hear these fine songs sung by two great Scandinavian singers.

The rest of the memorial concert programme is orchestral, beginning with the two national anthems. The work of Martti Similä was previously completely unknown to me. This concert was, it seems, his US debut and I was impressed. En Saga receives a spirted, ardent performance. The wild allegro (from 12:50) is very exciting, driven along by Similä to dramatic effect. In the slow closing section (from 15:04) the solo clarinet has a nice woody sound. It’s just a pity that the applause is so instantaneous – as it was after each of Björling’s songs. Finlandia begins with impressive, weighty orchestral sonority and as a whole the performance of this nationalist pieces exhibits suitable fervour.

The Fourth Symphony was not an obvious choice for such a concert; indeed, one might say it was a brave move to programme this uncompromising, often bleak score. I’m impressed with the way in which Similä handles it. He displays a sure grip in the brooding, rugged first movement. Incidentally, it has to be said that there are a few occasions in this movement where the NYPO’s tuning is fractionally iffy. Overall, though, the performance is strong and convincing. The second movement is not as light on its feet as some I’ve heard; the interpretation emphasises the tension in the music. There’s tension too, in the wintry, sparsely scored slow movement. The short climax, when it comes (10:09), is powerfully wrought. I confess that I’m never sure I understand the finale and, specifically, to what extent, if at all, Sibelius was seeking to lighten the mood. It’s a strange movement. The present performance brings something of a rarity: Similä opts to use tubular bells rather than the glockenspiel deployed by most conductors. I’m struggling to recall an instance where the glockenspiel hasn’t been used but I have to say that the bells sound rather effective here and perhaps this instrument accentuates the darkness of the interpretation. The movement is very atmospherically projected by Similä, not least in the last couple of minutes where the music benefits from the fairly deliberate tempo that he adopts. On the evidence of this performance this conductor was a fine Sibelian.

I think this is a notable release. It brings together a collection of fine Sibelius performances in excellent transfers. The set would be rewarding enough for the opportunity to hear Jussi Björling and Kirsten Flagstad sing Sibelius songs to such excellent effect but when one adds in excellent performances of the three orchestral works then the proposition becomes even more compelling.

John Quinn

Previous review: Göran Forsling

CD 1
Stafford SMITH (1750 – 1836)
1. The Star-Spangled Banner [1:34]
Fredrik PACIUS (1809 – 1891)
2. Vårt land, Finland’s National Anthem [1:28]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 [40:08]
Five Songs
7. Säv, säv, susa, Op. 36 No. 4 [3:10]
8. Flickan kom, Op. 37 No. 5 [4:17]
9. Var det en dröm? Op. 37 No. 4 [2:58]
10. Svarta rosor, Op. 36 No. 1 [3:13]
11. Demanten på marssnön, Op. 36 No. 6 [4:34]
Jussi Björling (tenor)
CD 2
1. En saga, Op. 9 [18:19]
2. Finlandia, Op. 26 No. 7 [9:34]
Fourteen Songs
3. Om kvällen (Illalle) (orch. Jalas), Op. 17 No. 6 [1:36]
4. Var det en dröm? (orch. Jalas), Op. 37 No. 4 [2:20]
5. Höstkväll, Op. 38 No. 1 [5:28]
6. Demanten på marssnön, Op. 36 No. 6 [2:20]
7. Flickan kom (orch. Pingoud), Op. 37 No. 5 [3:09]
8. Arioso, Op. 3 [4:05]
9. Våren flyktar hastigt, Op. 13 No. 4 [1:39]
10. Se’n har jag ej frågat mera, Op. 17 No. 1 [2:24]
11. Men min fågel märks dock icke, Op. 36 No. 2 [2:46]
12. På verandan vid havet, Op. 38 No. 2 [3:09]
13. Den första kyssen, (orch. Pingoud), Op. 37 No. 1 [2:05]
14. Svarta rosor, (orch. Pingoud), Op. 36 No. 1 [2:01]
15. Säv, säv, susa (orch. Hellmann), Op. 36 No. 4 [2:40]
16. Kom nu hit, Död (orch. Boruttau), Op. 60 No. 1 [3:39]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Martti Similä (CD 1, CD 2 tr. 1 & 2);
London Symphony Orchestra/Øivin Fjeldstad (CD 2 tr. 3-16)

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