SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63; Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104; Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 – Philadelphia Orch./ Leopold Stokowski (Op. 63)/ Finnish National Radio Orch./ Georg Schneevoigt (Op. 104)/ BBC Symphony Orch./ Serge Koussevitzky (Op. 105) – Naxos Historical 8.111399, 79:40 [Not distr. in the U.S.] ****:
Recording engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn assembles three noteworthy inscriptions of Sibelius symphonies, 1932-1934, of which the Sixth Symphony under Finnish maestro Georg Schneevoigt (1872-1947) reaps significant rewards. The death of conductor Robert Kajanus curtailed the HMV project of having the complete cycle of Sibelius as led by him, so HMV sought other conductors for their Sibelius Society recordings. Schneevoigt remains in the opinion of collectors and cognoscenti a fine and sensitive interpreter of Sibelius, a conductor who well knew and respected the composer’s intentions.
Leopold Stokowski recorded the musically audacious Fourth Symphony ( 23 April 1932) during the Depression, when musical resources and studio time were at a premium, so the ensemble of the Philadelphia Orchestra stands at under 60 players. Obert-Thorn has added some digital reverberation to compensate for the singularly dry acoustics of the Church Studio in Camden, New Jersey. Sibelius himself suffered dire financial and physical straits at the time of the Fourth Symphony’s creation, 1911, but its emotional austerity finds no less a brilliant economy of means musically. The opening, set as a tritone on C-D-F#-E, Sibelius termed a sound “harsh as fate,” and so the music exploits the sound as a growl, a prayer, or a threat, depending on the musical context. The tritone may provide a germ, but it does not provide a sense of security. Stokowski is quick to take up the emotional tonal ambiguity, and his reading of the first movement’s Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio hardly qualifies as adagio. Introspective and apprehensive, the music makes its point as a modern, a deliberately cold and bleak gesture that evolves according to its own lights. The potent pedal-point on C, which Stokowski makes clear, has the implication of “fate, with all sentimentality excluded,” as Sibelius put it.
The elusive nature of the music continues after the solo oboe and strings announce the dance-like second movement, whose character keeps breaking down. Stokowski maintains the feverish meandering of the music in tight control, the low strings of the Philadelphia whipping like Northern winds which subside so quickly they leave a yawning gulf. More of the Abyss lurks in the Il tempo largo movement, a series of fragmented gestures boiling gloomily out of the low winds and rich strings. Stokowski chose to use glockenspiel and tubular bells for the last movement, but the mood barely lightens for all that. Several times, we think we are about to hear one of those Stokowski symphonic arrangements of a Bach chorale emerge from the shivering textures, but every instance of light aborts. “It calls for much courage to confront life in the face,” quipped Sibelius.
The Sibelius 1923 Sixth Symphony may have been compared to “cold water” by the composer, but its richly Dorian cast – the D Major scale minus a C# – imparts a liturgical affect to the music, and several commentators have noted its Palestrina-like polyphony. The musical means appear simple and naive, but Sibelius moves to C Major from the tonic D with seamless facility. From the opening string measures, Schneevoigt (rec. 3 June 1934) emphasizes the music’s transparency of texture coupled with an understated warmth and serene passion. Strings, winds, and harp glide in “winter wonderland” colors, gently and lyrically exalted but firmly stated. The second movement Allegro moderato possesses the dreamy cast of a Finn’s response to Wagner’s Forest Murmurs. The flutes and bassoons begin with a passage invoking cool, Arctic spaces, perhaps a touch of Tapiola, the late hymn to the Forest-god. Scale passages begin and break off, overlap, while a pedal point grounds this elusive music to the earth. The violins play flautato to produce more unearthly glimpses of light. Schneevoigt keeps the line taut, even though the end of the journey remains obscure. Suddenly, Poco vivace, we are in the throes of a brief scherzo in trochaic meter, whether a gallop as in Night Ride and Sunrise or a series of swirling effects of a mountain stream. The Finnish National Orchestra, though playing daintily and lightly, manages to convince us that this is a bravura piece de resistance. The opening of the Allegro molto suggests a pantheist or liturgical affect, winds and strings in brisk, inexorable forward motion over the tympani. The horns merely add to a sense of natural pageantry. Yet the sense of entropy no less exerts itself, and what may have been dusk or twilight dissipates into night. Enigmatic and fascinating at once, the Sixth Symphony has had its first inscription, one that will inspire a host of artful imitators.
The Serge Koussevitzky reading of the 1924 Seventh Symphony (15 May 1933) comes from a live concert at the Queens Hall Promenade series. Conceived as a single movement, the music does sub-divide into more traditional sections, although the original material offers more harmonic tissue than melodic interest, at least until the trombone appears. Koussevitzky proceeds methodically, perhaps reluctantly, into a new spatial dimension, one that generates its own sense of radiance. The Koussevitzky rubato and portamento is evident in the string slides, but the tension and strain of the upward progressions justify the “subjective” license. A restless Vivacissimo follows, with the trombone’s offering consolation; then a scherzo of sorts evolves, by now allowing the spaced notes of the main theme to reveal itself. The trombone, along with glowing strings and brass punctuations, will assume a clarion quality, the often chamber-music sonority having now assumed a truly symphonic sonority, as perhaps the rondo (if that form works) has finally made its fullest statement. If the C Major outpouring hails a benediction, Koussevitzky doubles the effect by having added a trumpet to the peroration. Constant Lambert characterized the Seventh Symphony as “the spiritual experience of a lifetime [that] cannot be achieved by any aping of external mannerisms.”