Kajanus conducts SIBELIUS, Vol. 2 = Belshazzar’s Feast; Karelia Suite: Intermezzo and Alla marcia; Symphony No. 2 – London Sym. Orch. (Belshazzar)/ Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Robert Kajanus – Naxos Historical

by | Jan 26, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Kajanus conducts SIBELIUS, Vol. 2 = Belshazzar’s Feast – Concert Suite, Op. 51; Karelia Suite, Op. 11: Intermezzo and Alla marcia; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 – London Symphony Orchestra (Belshazzar)/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Robert Kajanus – Naxos Historical 8.111394, 61:52 [Not distr. in the U.S.] ****:

Recording engineer and restoration producer Mark Obert-Thorn extends his survey of the Robert Kajanus (1856-1933) in the recorded legacy of Jean Sibelius with this fine assemblage of recordings, 1930 and 1932. In 1930, English Columbia contracted with the Finnish government to disseminate Finnish music via the works of Jean Sibelius, especially as led by a native-born interpreter of the first rank in the recorded debut of the Sibelius symphonies. Robert Kajanus had the approval of the composer, who remarked that of the “many men who have conducted [my] symphonies during the last thirty years. . .there are none who have gone deeper and given them more feeling and beauty than Robert Kajanus.”

The disc opens with the Belshazzar’s Feast Suite (rec. 24, 29 June 1932) for EMI with the London Symphony.  The music, conceived 1906-1907 for a stage play by Hjalmar Procope, originally consisted of ten numbers, but Sibelius extracted a suite of four movements for reduced orchestra, utilizing exotic percussive effects. The scoring – as in the Solitude section – reminds one of Tchaikovsky’s capacity to pair viola and cello in sultry and evocative harmony. Kajanus elicits an array of distinctive colors from the LSO, beginning with the “Oriental Procession” and the lovely flute sequence from Night Music. The music lies somewhere between the melodic charm of Grieg and the more daring harmonic syntax of Nielsen while retaining its own diaphanous aura.

I recall auditioning the Kajanus recording (28 May 1930) Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite on LP, which even in that form quite overpowered me. The blazing force and relentless tempo of the string and horn work from the RPO, the tympani quite present, combines in especial, taut fury and pageantry. A pity that Kajanus did not record the central Ballade movement; but the Alla marcia exhibits the same resolve in its layered application of textures, the string, flute, and triangle resonant in the course of some virtuosic trumpet tonguing.  The performance quite sparkles with élan and joie de vivre, the music confident under the helm of a master colorist.

From the rather brisk opening measures, Kajanus leads an exemplary Symphony No. 2 in D Major (rec. 27-28 May 1930), a fine model for the two versions Koussevitzky would eventually commit to discs with the Boston Symphony. The sheer whirl of the running string parts provides a spectacular example of orchestral discipline, even without our admiration for the lyrical phrasing of the snippets of rhythm and melody that constitute something like a “development” section of the first movement. String trills, tympanic motion, and an exquisite crescendo form a devastating arch upon which the brass comments in majestic terms. A combination of landscape music and heroic vision, the first movement prepares us for the nobility of expression in the later music.

Koussevitzky, himself a string bass player, would more than “borrow” a page from Kajanus’ playbook in those opening pizzicati of the Andante movement. Rife with solemn tension, the music builds under Kajanus’ skillful direction to explode episodically in emotional paroxysm or bucolic ecstasy, a study in spirited pantheism. The seraphic repose Kajanus can communicate in such dynamically contrasting sections without loss of musical continuity proves outstanding, and the woodwind work suggests the old RPO enjoyed a wealth of talented principals. Another whirlwind emerges via the Vivacissimo movement, with its plaintive Trio oboe theme answered by fellow winds and low strings. More pageantry and somber processionals mark the last movement, Allegro moderato, with its splendid chorale-like hymn to Nature or the Fatherland, which in Sibelius’ case, may be synonymous.  Windy low strings and a plaintive oboe combine once more to invoke the secondary theme that will gain in girth and volume a la Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We easily forget the age of these shellacs, the spectacular sound as vivid and musically inevitable as anything current, and certainly “authentic.”

Heartily recommended to all Sibelius enthusiasts, so forget the “historical” epithet – these performances cook!

—Gary Lemco