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Jean SIBELIUS (1865–1957)
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op.63 (1911) [30:29]
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op.82 (1919) [27:30]
Finlandia (1899/1900) [06:58]
Armas JÄRNEFELT (1869–1958)
Praeludium (1900) [02:47]
New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra/Artur Rodzinski
(Sibelius Nr.4 rec. 5th March 1946 - NYP)
(Sibelius Nr.5/Järnefelt: Præludium rec. 28th December 1941, Sibelius Finlandia rec. 20th December 1939 – Cleveland Orchestra)
MAESTRO EDITIONS ME.013 [67:04]

Of the three great European conductors to emigrate to the United States (Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Artur Rodzinski) it was Rodzinski who was in many ways the most fascinating. He would end up – uniquely – as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (albeit for only one season). His impact on the orchestras he conducted was huge – notably artistically, but also in his complete inability to compromise and in his contentious and persistent clashes with the management of all of the orchestras he led. His career would end up where it had begun – in Europe. And the toll on his health of all of this would prove prematurely fatal.

Many of Rodzinski’s early recordings in Cleveland and New York are wonderful. Forget the sound. Who would want to be without his Cleveland Scheherazade, or the magnificent Ein Heldenleben? His repertoire was huge, and there were surprises – like a searing but powerful Bruckner Seventh with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1938. He was famously conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on 7th December 1941 when news of the attack on Pearl Harbour was broadcast and the live concert was interrupted. The list is almost endless. And it includes this remarkable Sibelius Fourth from 5th March 1946 with the New York Philharmonic originally issued on Columbia LP.

One can assume that the reason Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic were able to put down the Sibelius Fourth in a single day was because it was recorded very soon – actually two days – after they had given their last Carnegie Hall performance of the symphony. That 3rd March 1946 performance, which comes from the Rodzinski Collection, is in general half a second slower in each movement. To say that is a towering Sibelius Fourth would be a bit of an understatement; it is often shattering, a wrenching experience which perhaps few performances have reached on disc, either in the studio or live.

The general tempi of Rodzinski’s Sibelius may not be to everyone’s taste; he is not inclined to wallow in this music. The Columbia LP was in circulation at the time of some later performances, such as Karajan’s with the Philharmonia Orchestra – and even an earlier one by Beecham made in 1937 – both of which were known to Sibelius; the Rodzinski does not appear to have been (he isn’t mentioned at all in Erik Tawaststjerna’s Sibelius biography). In some ways, Sibelius may indeed have liked Rodzinski’s approach to the first movement. After all, the two tempos are specifically marked to be taken at a certain speed and Rodzinski does get them the right way round – something Beecham does not, and Karajan would also get right with the Philharmonia, as he would a great deal in this symphony (Karajan and Walter Legge would study the details of this symphony to an insane degree).

An interesting discrepancy you’ll find at the opposite end of the symphony is in the last six bars. Sibelius reportedly had something faster in mind than what is suggested in the score – in fact, you’ll hear this in Karajan, both in Berlin and, especially his live 1978 performance in which he treats all six bars as having the same measures. I find Rodzinski closer to what Sibelius has put in his score, the studio recording better than the live one (you’ll get stuck in a groove with Stokowski, however).

The heart – or very soul of this symphony – is the Largo. Just as its key is ambiguous, so is its larger meaning. Perhaps it is based in psychoanalysis or anchored somewhere more finite. Rodzinski and the New Yorkers manage to open with some very bleak wind solos – ones that look back to the final devastation of Mahler’s Ninth. The strings get some very skeletal playing, as much as they do a pronounced depth of tone to the lower strings which only adds to all the ambiguity; it’s not that it’s written this way, rather that Rodzinski widens the string tone of the NYP so much you get that ambiguity of meaning. Just what world are we in? That bleakest of climaxes, just six bars of music at Fig. G – here so redolent of Shostakovich – and some of the most devastating in all music, brings terror from the orchestra rather than the usual sense of tragedy we hear. Many listeners will probably fail to respond to it; Rodzinski’s tempo is almost a shock to the system, but thrilling none the less should you do so.

The Cleveland Orchestra Fifth, again from a Columbia LP, and made shortly after Pearl Harbour in late December 1941, is an exhilarating ride. Rodzinski had taken up the reigns at Cleveland in 1933 and his recordings with them are of superb quality. The precision – let alone the sheer dynamic range of the orchestra in this symphony – is quite remarkable. In the First Movement, the pianissimos at 5’00 that lead into those dashing and fluttering string figurations are so controlled and meticulous. This is common throughout the movement, as is the crystalline woodwind and glorious brass playing. The accuracy is astounding – although it hardly sounds as if the Clevelanders have been terrified by their conductor into playing with this level of precision.

The virtuosity of the Cleveland strings, playing either pizzicato in the central Second Movement, or tremolando in the final movement, is a given here. The sweeping drama of the Third Movement is almost monumental – but rather oddly the sound seems to have a wider dynamic range which emphasises the majestic power of the music.

Of the two fillers the very short Præludium by Armas Järnefelt is played dashingly – a serene violin solo, precise pizzicato, jaunty woodwind – tightly crammed into a rather fine three minutes of music. The 20th December 1939 Finlandia, also with the Clevelanders, is at under seven minutes rather faster than the usual running time for this piece but the sheer grandeur of the playing makes this performance sound significantly longer. Growling lower strings, stunning brass playing and a turbulence before the hymnal second half gives it momentum and struggle before an edgy calmness replaces it. It’s a great performance.

As to the sound on this disc, in the case of the Fifth Symphony, Järnefelt and Finlandia I don’t have a problem with what Maestro Edition have done. The New York Sibelius Fourth is a different matter. The Fourth is asterisked as ‘first release on CD’ which may well have been true when this was released back in 2018 (although I think it wasn’t because the New York Philharmonic 175th Anniversary Boxed Set of 65 discs back in 2017 had this performance on CD 13 coupled with Rodzinski’s Prokofiev Fifth). That Sibelius, however, is in excellent sound on the New York release. The ME disc doesn’t especially lack a sense of width or depth, but it has a hollowness and ring to the performance which can be a bit of a distraction. It can sometimes sound as if you’re listening to it on a telephone line.

There is, however, no alternative for the Fourth unless you want to buy the entire New York boxed set. Besides, with Rodzinski’s superb Fifth, an outsized Finlandia and one of the greatest Sibelius Fourths this is a disc it would be churlish not to recommend outright.

Marc Bridle

 



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