SIBELIUS: Finlandia, Op. 26; Lemminkainen Suite, Op. 22: Lemminkainen in Tuonela; Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari; Symphony No. 2 in D Major,Op. 43 -;NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Georg Schnéevoigt – Pristine Audio PASC 631, 78:19 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
The Thursday evening 28 September 1939 concert of the NBC Symphony at Carnegie Hall featured an appearance by Finnish conductor Georg Lennart Schnéevoigt (1872-1947) at the podium for an all-Sibelius program. Schnéevoigt along with fellow Finn, conductor Robert Kajanus (1856-1933), embodied the Sibelius tradition virtually from its inception under the composer’s aegis. The restoration of this rare occasion marks a special document added to the Pristine catalogue by producer Andrew Rose.
Schnéevoigt opens with the most familiar of Sibelius’ scores, his 1899 nationalistic tone-poem Finlandia. He has the NBC brass and timpani in full fettle, militantly ominous and tensely alert. The gradual addition of strings and woodwinds mounts a wonderful, colored intensity, and it comes as grand relief to hear the festive and spiritual relief of the hymn tune, the feeling that “Finland Awakes.” Given both the political climate of its composition, intended for the Finnish Press Pension Celebration of 1899 in order to encourage independence from Russian control, and the events of September 1939, with the invasion of Poland by Nazi oppressors, it becomes obvious why the level of audience response is near manic.
Schnéevoigt proceeds to a pair of excerpts from the 1895 four-movement symphonic poem Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op. 22, based on the Finnish epic of 50 cantos compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology. The first of the excerpts, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, depicts in broad and dark colors the hero, Lemminkainen, in the land of death, having been slain by the blind man of the Northland while Lemminkainen had sought to slay the Swan of Tuonela, so to claim Louhi, mistress of the Pohjola or Northland, in marriage. The richly decorative Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari, brings a febrile intensity to the NBC Symphony rare even when Toscanini has his players in thrall. This expansive tone-poem is based on Canto 29 (“Conquests”) of the Kalevala, where Lemminkäinen travels to an island and seduces many of the women there, before fleeing the rage of the men on the island. The extreme demands on the NBC woodwinds, especially the flutes, with one doubling as piccolo, seem no hurdles at all, and the wonderful tension of the work, given its many transitions in texture and tempo, Schnéevoigt controls with a sure hand. We have rousing music-making, and so we and the NBC players have become more than ready for bucolic and “national” impulses in the Second Symphony of 1902, what the composer deemed “a confession of the soul.”
Schnéevoigt takes the Symphony’s first movement and its three-note motto at a brisk, bravura Allegretto, which in his persuasive rendering combines a sense of dramatic tension with intimations of broad vistas. The music evolves from kernels and mosaic-like fragments, with its own notions of sonata-form. The constant, urgent pace of the reading makes those few moments of relief stand out, all while building the music to a mighty surge of energy in brass punctuations and string trills.
The fervent rush of the first movement having subsided – with grateful applause from New Yorkers – Schnéevoigt begins the strong pizzicato figures with timpani roll of the second movement, Tempo andante, ma rubato, set in the Aeolian mode. Winds and string lines appear to be in competition, with sudden upward rushes of scalar energy and brass injections of clarion sound. When the turmoil ceases, we have a pregnant pause, and a most lovely series of melodic tissue emanates from strings and winds. At this point, we can say the NBC Symphony Orchestra luxuriates in its own sonorities. True, a degree of distress returns, but only to resolve itself in visons of a better, higher reality. Again, applause from the audience.
The third movement, Vivacissimo receives breathless execution until the pause and the oboe entry in G-flat Major for the Trio, when bucolic, luminously pastoral impulses flourish. The hectic restlessness returns with a vengeance, again go the pedal point for the Trio’s solace; but now, the interior grumblings move us, attacca, to what will become heroic proportions, announced by (Roman) trumpets. The three-note motif undergoes a series of transformations, growing in texture and intensity in a way common to Beethoven’s increasing crescendos of his Ninth Symphony theme. The original Finnish audience interpreted the finale as an expression of a declaration of Finnish independence from foreign intervention and aggression. Contemporary American music critic Olin Downes praised Schnéevoigt for his “contagious sympathy.” Idiosyncratic and deeply personal as this reading may be, it doubtless conveys much of the composer’s convictions on how this music should proceed.
NB: Pristine offers a free download to those who purchase the CD of the extended fragment of the Sibelius Seventh performed on that historic Thursday at Carnegie Hall.