Magazine article Gramophone

Sibelius at 150: Andrew Achenbach Listens to a Bumper Crop of Reissues for the Composer's Sesquicentennial, Focusing on a Range of Symphony Cycles

Magazine article Gramophone

Sibelius at 150: Andrew Achenbach Listens to a Bumper Crop of Reissues for the Composer's Sesquicentennial, Focusing on a Range of Symphony Cycles

Article excerpt

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Few pioneering recordings from any era burn with greater passionate intensity or recreative spark than those set down in London during the early 1930s by the Finnish maestro Robert Kajanus (1856-1933). They were originally issued on Columbia 78s and the first two volumes of HMVs Sibelius Society series, and the repertoire embraced Symphonies Nos 1-3 and 5, Tapiola, Pohjola's Daughter, Belshazzar's Feast, and the 'Intermezzo' and 'Alla marcia' from the Karelia Suite. The septuagenarian's identification with his countryman's music is total, and his dedicated interpretations distil an elemental power, entrancing poetic reach and lofty sweep that continue to astonish. Kajanus's towering legacy is one of the many reasons to invest in Warner Classics' seven-CD Historical Recordings and Rarities, Beecham's 1935-39 LPO recordings being another --try the wild ride that is Lemminkainen's Return to hear this legendary partnership operating at full throttle. Koussevitzky's volcanic live BBC SO Seventh (Queen's Hall, May 1933) is here too, as are Boult's conspicuously vital readings of Night Ride and Sunrise, The Oceanides and Romance with the same band. Rarities elsewhere include soprano Helmi Liukkonen's plucky concert performance of Luonnotar (from June 4, 1934, at Queen's Hall) with the Helsinki PO under Georg Schneevoigt; five songs from contralto Marian Anderson partnered by Kosti Vehanen (Paris, 1936); and Sibelius himself conducting the Andante festivo (Berlin, 1939). Transfers have been consistently well made, and Robert Layton provides an absorbing booklet essay.

Sony has taken the opportunity to round up Eugene Ormandy's underrated stereo Sibelius recordings from 1957 to 1980. You'll find two versions each of Symphonies Nos 1, 2 and 7, the Violin Concerto (with Isaac Stern and Dylana Jenson, from 1969 and 1980 respectively--but no room, strangely, for his distinguished 1959 account with David Oistrakh), Karelia Suite, En saga and no fewer than three oi Finlandia. On the whole, Ormandy (always a doughty champion of the composer) proves a cogent, unexaggerated guide, and the Philadelphians respond with their customary lustre, dash and discipline. I was especially riveted by his terrific 1962 account of the First Symphony (some departures from the text notwithstanding) and a decidedly classy 1957-60 pairing of Nos 2 and 7. There's also a most exciting En saga from 1961, albeit too closely recorded. By comparison, Symphonies Nos 4 and 5, Tapiola, The Oceanides and Pohjola's Daughter (from 1975-78) generate a somewhat lower voltage.

Both Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel recorded all seven numbered symphonies during the 1960s. Decca Classics' lavish 24-bit restoration of the latter's famous VPO cycle (credited to Ian Jones working at Abbey Road Studios) will bring a smile to audiophiles. It's spread here over four CDs (and also snugly housed on a single Blu-ray Disc), and Gordon Parry's engineering possesses almost startling physical impact and tangible presence. Interpretatively speaking, however, I persist in finding this a maddeningly uneven package. Granted, Nos 1, 4, 7 and Tapiola remain among the most boldly compelling ever recorded, but I've personally never cared for Maazel's relentlessly macho Second (it's no match for the thrilling LSO/Monteux or RPO/ Barbirolli from a few years earlier), nor his hasty, at times brusque Third, dutiful Fifth and choppy, flustered Sixth.

Sony's NYPO/Leonard Bernstein anthology (newly refurbished by Andreas Meyer and sounding markedly more explicit than I remember) likewise has its fair share of ups and downs. …

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