SIBELIUS: Historic Recordings and Rarities, 1928-1945 – feat. Boult, Beecham, Koussevitzky etc. – Warner Classics (7 CDs)

by | Dec 22, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

For his 150th birthday, Sibelius has his classic inscriptions restored for a grand pageant by many of his favored interpreters.

SIBELIUS: Historic Recordings and Rarities, 1928-1945 = The Seven Symphonies; Karelia Suite; Andante festive; Pohjola’s Daughter; Belshazzar’s Feast; Tapiola; Night Ride and Sunrise; The Oceanides; Romance in C Major; The Bard; The Tempest; Pelleas and Melisande; In Memoriam; Violin Concerto in d minor; Luonnotar; King Christian II; En Saga; The Return of Lemminkainen; Scenes historiques – Festivo; Finlandia; Valse triste; String Quartet in d minor; Romance in F; Danses champetres; Mazurka; Auf dem Herde; Malincolia; Romance in D-flat Major; Songs –  Helmi Liukkonen, soprano/ Marian Anderson, contralto/ Anja Ignatius, violin/ Jascha Heifetz, violin/ Emil Telmanyi, violin/ Louis Jensen, cello/ Budapest String Quartet/ Gerald Moore, piano/ Eileen Joyce, piano/ Kosti Vehanen, piano/ Tino Makkila, piano/ G. v. Vasarhelyi, piano / BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/ Finnish Radio Orchestra/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Stockholm Opera House Orchestra/ Jean Sibelius/ Robert Kajanus/ Sir Adrian Boult/ Sir Thomas Beecham/ Armas Jarnefelt/ Georg Schneevoigt/ Serge Koussevitzky – Warner Classics 0825646053179 (7 CDs) 74:22, 77:08, 73:21, 79:07, 67:44, 75:39, 67:05 (10/7/15) ****:

Much of this collation – celebrating the 150th anniversary of the composer – has appeared in earlier incarnations, mainly through the Naxos Historical label’s transfers from the EMI Sibelius Society recordings by way of Mark Obert-Thorn, excepting some of the “Rarities,” and even they have found formats through Danacord, Biddulph, Koch, and assorted pirate labels.  Most of the transfers remain singularly quiet, although a few suffer tolerable crackle and swish endemic to old shellacs.  If any particular artist seems slighted by the set, it might be Leopold Stokowski, who did much work in Philadelphia during the same era to advocate for this composer whom Constant Lambert had predicted “would prove to be the greatest of his generation.”
Sibelius himself attended many performances by his foremost native interpreter, Robert Kajanus (1856-1933), whose readings of the First, Second, Third, and Fifth Symphonies still resonate with monumentality and authenticity of expression.  The knotty Third Symphony, which the likes of such “Sibelius” interpreters as Karajan and Ormandy as well as Beecham, Koussevitzky, and Stokowski – never committed to disc, wary of its architectural intricacies. The Kajanus realization (21-22 June 1932) has power, pace, drama and lyricism that we would not hear again on record until the next generation of Sibelius interpreters, Bernstein, Barbirolli, Sanderling and Jarvi.  Kajanus achieves an equally epic character in the Symphony No. 5, what the composer once called “a mosaic” of impulses. The fierce tension of the first movement finally coalesces into a stratified theme, a suggestion of a mighty arch-form. The last movement emerges as a pantheistic hymn with ravishing trumpets. I have commented prior on the extraordinary, manic energy Kajanus elicits for the Intermezzo opening of the Karelia Suite (28 May 1930). A pity Kajanus did not record the central movement, of which my favorite recording comes from Hans Rosbaud.  The “rarities” here (on Disc 2) lie in the March of the Finnish Jaeger Battalion, Op. 91a (30 May 1930), a jingoistic moment, to say the least.  But the next offering has real splendor: Sibelius leads the Finnish Radio Orchestra in his 1924 Andante festivo (1 January 1939), perhaps aware that its valediction expresses a world’s quickly passing away.
More of the unusual in the Sibelius repertory opens CD 6, with the “tone poem for voice and orchestra,” the 1910 Luonnotar, Op. 70, with Helmi Liukkonen and the Helsinki Philharmonic led by Georg Schneevoigt (4 June 1934), an evocation of the goddess of the air from the Finnish Kalevala, with a punishing vocal part that Liukkonen’s voice does not quite command. Georg Schneevoigt (1872-1947) appears to more advantage in the Sibelius 1923 Symphony No.6 (3 June 1934), a piece often characterized as “somber with pastoral contrasts.”  A delicate tracery opens this often shadow-laden work, with the unusual color touches coming later in by bass clarinet and harp. Schneevoigt educes a streamlined energy throughout this under-rated score, whose finale virtually roars with a passion that subdues the main theme. The 1898 King Christian II – Suite (rec. 7 June 1929) had been introduced to the Helsinki Symphony under Kajanus; here, the recording by the Stockholm Opera House Orchestra has composer Armas Jarnefelt (1868-1959) at the helm. Its lyric character takes its cue from a play by Adolf Paul, in which the Elegy projects a romantic character, while the Ballade originally meant to depict a massacre ordered by the King in 1520.
Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) owns Discs 4 and 6, which assemble the conductor’s ambitious devotion to Sibelius with his recordings made 1935-1939, predominantly with the London Philharmonic.  The one exception lies in the Intermezzo from the Op. 11 Karelia, recorded 13 December 1945. After Jascha Heifetz rejected his 1934 inscription of the Violin Concerto with Stokowski for RCA, he went on to record the work with Beecham (26 November 1935), and the rendition still resonates with high gloss and charged energy.   The Fourth Symphony (10 October 1937), admittedly, presents a challenge, given its audacious orchestral syntax, and Beecham demonstrates some real grit in his performance, which rivals a contemporary reading by Stokowski. Beecham favored only the Bolero (Festivo) movement from the Op. 25 Scenes historiques (14 December 1935), a pity, since the opening scene makes many sparks, as Barbirolli proved later for EMI. Of the more popular classics, the Beecham Finlandia (1 February 1938) takes its solemn time, a procession fraught with nationalistic menace and vibrant pride.  The Valse triste (15 November 1938) combines textural delicacy with a rather brisk pace. Besides a ferocious storm sequence from The Tempest (10 November 1937), along with five other excerpts from two suites, Beecham intones the often dissonant, disturbing funeral march In Memoriam, Op. 59 (14 November 1938), music that made a strong impression on my Binghamton audience when I broadcast this performance (from an LP) years ago over WHRW-FM.
Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) shares the Sibelius podium with Robert Kajanus on Disc 3, with Boult’s leading the recently formed BBC Symphony in the macabre but compelling Night Ride and Sunrise (23 January 1936), The Oceanides, an evocation of Classical nymphs who swim the Mediterranean Sea, and the gentle string Romance in C Major (9 April 1940). Typically, Boult delivers clear, chiseled performances much in the Toscanini tradition. Kajanus proves eminently formidable, as ever, in his wild Pohjola’s Daughter (30 June 1932), with excellent brass work from the London Symphony Orchestra.  The icy fever in the Kajanus evocation of the forest-god Tapiola from the same session rivals the BSO inscription from Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951).  That immortal Sibelius champion has one of his sojourns away from Boston, leading (on Disc 5) the BBC Symphony in a tense and fervent reading of the one-movement Symphony No. 7 in C (15 May 1933) in a live broadcast.  The hymnody of the beginning soon expands organically into a primal unity – with a scherzo (Vivacissimo) and an excursion into g minor – that carry Tristan motifs as well as tunes the composer designated for his wife Aino and daughter Ruth, much as Mahler had conceived an “Alma” theme for his Sixth Symphony. 
Finally, the salon and vocal works of Disc 7, which feature many prominent artists, like Hungarian Emil Telmanyi (1892-1988), the fine violinist who did much for both Bach and Nielsen.  In the Romance and two Op. 106 Danses champetre (28 March 1935) Telmanyi projects a rustic beauty in Sibelius we often ascribe to Dvorak.  Finnish violinist Anja Ignatius (1911-1995) performs two pieces in August 1939, a leaping Mazurka and a mellow Auf dem Herde.  Besides the fine rendition of the d minor String Quartet, made in Berlin 8 August 1933 by the Budapest Quartet, the disc concludes with a series of five  lieder sung by Marian Anderson (1897-1993). With her idiosyncratic rich contralto, Anderson imparts to Sibelius (rec. June and August 1936) the same haunted resonance she brings to Brahms.  Her potent tessitura and color pathos come to the fore in “The girl returned from meeting her lover,” Op. 37, No. 5. The setting of Richard Dehmel’s “From a fearful heart,” Op. 50, No. 4 rivals similar, dark lieder by Hugo Wolf for character and potent keyboard writing. Anderson renders “Come away, death” in English.

It’s been a pleasure and musical voyage of discovery to explore these works in their classic renditions, well worth the time and dedication to savor these tributes to a great composer.

—Gary Lemco

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