In May 1930 there arose a now-forgotten gesture that resonates with significance as an extraordinary signpost in the alliance and codependence of music and recordings. The government of Finland paid the English Columbia Graphone Company 50,000 markka (about $15,000, a considerable fee at the time) to record the first two symphonies of native son Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957). A press release proclaimed: "This is the first occasion that any government have interested itself in recording native music for world propaganda purposes." (Of course, this was before "propaganda" took on its current pejorative connotation of mass deceit.) The investment brought Sibelius world-wide fame and his nation's political plight international attention, and still stands as a testament not only to the exceptional importance of Sibelius in the history and emergent culture of Finland, but to the power of the phonograph to spread local culture and foster global understanding.
The path to this daring and extraordinary act was a half-century in the making.
Johan Julius Christian Sibelius (he later adopted the French form of his nickname Janne) was born into a stressful time for his country, long smothered under both Swedish culture, which dominated the educational system, and the Russian military, which maintained a garrison in his home town of Tavastehus. His passion for music arose only at age 15. Realizing that his training came too late to achieve his aspiration of a career as a concert violinist, he turned instead to composing. He poured into his work not only a vivid imagination but an intense love of nature which became reflected in his deeply personal style rooted in the geography of his homeland – his structures of organic growth from the smallest of motives emulate the processes of nature, their titanic struggles suggest the battle for existence in a harsh climate, his sustained tones reflect the striking terrain of deep-walled fjords, and his lucid sonorities breathe the health of the crisp, clean Northern air. While Neville Cardus thought the world of Sibelius to be so imbued with nature as to be unpeopled, Sibelius himself asserted that his work was intimately connected with life, in contrast to much other music of his time.
The other fundamental influence for Sibelius was Finnish legends,
Through the end of the century, nearly all of Sibelius's key works were steeped in Finnish folklore – En Saga, the Karelia Overture and Karelia Suite, Seven Runeberg Songs, Rakastava, the Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends from the "Kalevala") and the Scènes Historiques. Ironically, from the very outset his style seemed so authentic that he had to defend his originality against the widely-held assumption that his themes were drawn from actual folk tunes. They weren't, although, as Lisa de Gorog has documented, the distinctive characteristics of Finnish folk music infused Sibelius's original melodies – including first-syllable accents, no upbeats, strong stress, mixtures of 4/4 and 5/4 rhythms, repeated notes, limited range and emulation of speech patterns.
Sibelius concluded 1899 with Finlandia. Its urgent, riveting themes, yearning, distinctive Scandinavian sonority, earnest anthemic hymn, imposing continual rising and falling phrases, and stirring heroic finish created an international sensation, attained global fame and became a rallying point for national frustration and pride. (To mollify foreign censors, it was occasionally (and perhaps facetiously) programmed under the title "Nocturne," but no one hearing it possibly could have been lulled by the ruse.) Sibelius became so identified with Finnish aspirations that even his "Song of the Athenians," whose text had nothing to do with Finland, was widely interpreted as a defiant emblem for resistance to Russian repression.
De Gorog notes that Finns have a tendency toward hero-worship, and gladly embraced Sibelius as a symbol of national self-esteem. Simon Parmet summarized his importance as the first great creative musician Finland had ever produced – Sibelius filled a gap in the spiritual life of the country, translated its folklore into a universally-understood language that expressed the nation's soul, made it an active participant in world culture and politics, and gave his countrymen tangible hope for a vibrant and independent future. In a gesture that recognized his cultural value, in 1897 the Finnish government awarded the young hero a pension, at first for ten years, and later for life, to both reward and encourage his work.
Having taught for five years at the Helsinki musical academy, Sibelius turned to full-time composition and completed his first symphony in 1900. In retrospect, some seize upon its lush melodies and nervous finale as indebted to, and an extension of, Tchaikovsky (although without the Russian's neurotic temperament) and view it as a summation and farewell to the prevalent romantic style of central Europe. Yet its striking originality stands well apart from that heritage, from its long, meandering solo clarinet opening, through an urgent tympani-fueled first climax, to its stormy concluding bars of conquest tinged with regret. Predictably, many seized upon the work's perceived patriotic overtones - Simon Parmet praised it as an expansion of Finlandia: "music of a young giant, full of fiery love for his country and flaming defiance against its oppressors. Both works are songs of praise to the beloved native land at a time of distress." Karl Ekman, though, saw it in far more personal terms as a profoundly human document, a confession in sound of Sibelius's emerging defiant personality, "his dreams, his melancholy, his longing, his undaunted acceptance of life, his indomitable will to assert himself, … the struggle of a soul full of conflict for its salvation."
A second gesture of appreciation led to the Symphony # 2. Baron Axel Carpelan, a wealthy benefactor, sent Sibelius and his family to Italy for a year. There, freed from the pressure of daily life and in the hospitable warmth of the Mediterranean springtime, Sibelius wrote his new work. Ekman hailed it as radiant, "a song of praise to summer and the joy of living, a work of wide horizons with light and power … softened by a more optimistic outlook on life and a joyful feeling a the delight of creating." Yet, another force had significantly darkened his outlook - in 1901 he began suffering from an ear affliction and became fearful of impending deafness. (Although his hearing was fully cured within a few years, all his further symphonic work (except for the rather classical Third), was written under an even grimmer medical cloud - in 1908 he underwent 15 debilitating operations for a throat tumor; although it turned out to be benign, he lived in fear of a recurrence and had to give up his beloved cigars. Robert Layton suggests that his brush with mortality impelled Sibelius to simplify his later style to focus on essentials, and indeed his later work is shorn of rhetoric, to the point of seeming brusque.)
More than any of Sibelius's other work, his Symphony # 2 has stimulated considerable discussion as to its "meaning." Sibelius himself thought of it as "a struggle between death and salvation" and "a confession of the soul," but others tended from the outset to cite its strong national character. One critic dubbed it "our Liberation Symphony." Finnish conductor George Schnéevoight went further to assign a specific patriotic program, in which the first movement depicted the Finns' pastoral life, the second the brutality of foreign rule, the third a crushing of patriotic spirit, and the fourth the glorious hope for deliverance from tyranny.
From the very outset, Sibelius's work was recognized as standing apart from the mainstream. As early as 1900, Finnish critic Karl Flodin expressed hope that Sibelius would become known outside his own country and took comfort in the thought that "in reality he composes for at least a generation ahead" and would become understood and popular only after his lifetime. In one of the most prescient early notices outside Finland (where fervent support was impelled as much by nationalist sentiments as by musical judgment), Duncan Hume wrote in the 1908 edition of the conservative English Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians:
Sibelius is a composer who must be taken on his own merits; it would be difficult to compare him to anyone else, the whole atmosphere of his work is so strange, and so permeated with lights and shadows that are unfamiliar, and colours that are almost from another world. … Sibelius has much to say; much that is new and much that no one else could either imagine or express.Yet, while later generations have generally despaired of melding Sibelius into the mainstream of continuous Western musical evolution, he is constantly contrasted with the courage of 20th century revolutionaries who rejected traditional elements outright. Thus Harold Truscott considers him a strongly tonal composer with roots in late romanticism but whose growth from the past was not foreseeable from the prior century, but rather was a latent possibility previously untapped. Ekman lauds him for deepening and simplifying established methods, rather than abandoning them for new sounds and processes. Others like David Ewen have hailed Sibelius as proof that no musical structure or style becomes dated or obsolete and the methods of the past remain vital if a composer can bring to them a fresh personal point of view.
Even so, scholars struggled to view Sibelius with traditional tools. Thus, Cecil Gray likened the first movement of the Symphony # 2 to an inversion of sonata form, since melodic fragments in the exposition build into an organic whole in the development, only to disperse again in the recapitulation. Many others since have dispensed with such detailed analyses, noting simply that Sibelius used extremely short themes throughout his works. Thus, Lionel Pike demonstrates that the entire first movement of the Symphony # 2 is built upon a logical exploration of the opening three-note motif. Indeed, Sibelius stated that for him the essence of the symphony was a profound logic that creates a connection between all the motifs, and disputed Mahler's view that a symphony must be like the world itself, embracing everything. Even so, Sibelius claimed that his logical construction was largely instinctive and that he viewed the creative process as "dependent upon powers that are stronger than oneself. Later on, one can substantiate this or that, but on the whole one is merely a tool. This wonderful logic - let us call it God - that governs a work is the forming power." Harold Johnson relates this to the composer's personality – his speech and train of thought often were disconnected, "with new and brilliant ideas succeeding each other with amazing rapidity."
The most prevalent structural comparison for Sibelius has been to none other than Beethoven. As early as 1900, Flodin had analogized the two composers. Sibelius himself revered Beethoven as a revelation above all others, whose ideas were not compromised by practicality – "Everything was against him and yet he triumphed." Lionel Pike devoted an entire book to comparing their symphonies.
In any event, the Symphony # 2 is a magnificent work whose traditional four movements fully reflect the hallmarks of the Sibelian style.
Another first movement theme typifies the Sibelian contrast between extremely long and short notes, whether combined in a single line or heard simultaneously in the accompaniment. The length of the held notes in harmonic underpinning documents a related characteristic of pedal points, by which Sibelius both produced tension and slowed the harmonic flow to intensify climaxes. Unlike traditional use of the pedal technique (as in sustained Baroque organ notes), Sibelius spreads them throughout the orchestra, from tympani rolls through every instrumental choir, and from sustained notes to tremeloes, all for a wide variety of coloration and in order to cure what he perceived to be a hole in the orchestral fabric. In the Symphony # 2, these form a key ingredient to the second movement, an andante in which fitful wrenching moods and grating climaxes erupt from a fundamental pastoral ground of haunting sorrow.
The third movement invokes
Sibelius led the premieres of nearly all his works and conducted them often, with great success. He gave the first performance of the Symphony # 2 on March 3, 1902 in Helsinki. The press lauded a subsequent Berlin concert for his lively imagination, inventive powers and rousing strength. One critic, Adolph Paul, gushed that he led the orchestra to play "brilliantly, with swing, fire and enthusiasm" and cited his rare leadership "that is not only able to enter into and render plastically and clearly the works of art he presents but that above all irresistibly subjects both orchestra and audience to the power of his personality, turns them into our heart and soul, combines them into one great intoxication of rapture and makes them as ready to receive as he is to give." Yet Sibelius was mike-shy and never made a recording. (Our only token of his conducting is a 1939 broadcast of his Andante festivo for strings, but while fluid, its brevity, serene emotions and conservative orchestration reveal little of his performing style or outlook.) For the 1930 project, he passed the baton to Robert Kajanus. He wrote at the time: "Very many are the men who have conducted this [First] Symphony during the last 30 years, but there are none who have gone deeper and given them more feeling and beauty than Robert Kajanus." While it is true that Sibelius tended to effusively praise all who programmed his major works, his choice of Kajanus was apt and auspicious.
More than anyone else, Kajanus had kindled and guided Sibelius's ambition. In 1882, at the intrepid age of 26, he founded Finland's first permanent orchestra, with which he championed the work of its native composers, both at home and on tour, for the next half-century. His Aino symphony, based on Finnish folklore, inspired Sibelius to write his own first major work, Kullervo. (Although dubbed a symphony, Kullervo is not counted among Sibelius's works in the genre; it's really more an oratorio, despite its hugely successful premiere was never published, and is generally written off as juvenilia.) Kajanus commissioned the struggling composer's next major work, En Saga, and throughout his long career served as the most ardent advocate of his younger colleague's work.
Kajanus's recordings exemplify the composer's performance ideals. Kajanus corresponded frequently with Sibelius during the composition of the Second Symphony and snuck into the rehearsals (from which Sibelius barred witnesses) to study and absorb the composer's intentions. Although Sibelius foreswore metronome markings, urging conductors instead to be guided by their artistic instincts, he praised Kajanus's sense of proportion and balance to create homogeneity and a unity of conception.
Sibelius wrote: "I trust earnestly that Columbia will avail itself of the services of Professor Kajanus should they consider recording any more of my compositions." They didn't, but the success of the initial venture prompted the formation of a Sibelius Society which issued six more volumes of his work through HMV on a subscription basis. For the first two, issued in June 1932, Kajanus led the London Symphony Orchestra in the Symphonies 3 and 5 and the tone poem Tapiola. After Kajanus's death the next year, his successor George Schnéevoight led the Finnish Symphony Orchestra in the Symphony # 6. The series was completed with a stunning live recording of Koussevitzky and the BBC Symphony in the Symphony # 7 and a vital 1937 Beecham London Philharmonic Symphony # 4 and numerous short pieces. Although issued piecemeal and from varied sources, this first set launched the Sibelius symphonies into the world and paved the way to his current fame.
The first truly integral set of Sibelius symphony recordings (in the sense of a single conductor and orchestra) had to await nearly two more decades when not one but two appeared, both led by relative unknowns.
Sixten Ehrling would go on to a substantial career in opera and ten years at the helm of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, but was tapped by Metronome records to lead the Stockholm Philharmonic in the complete Sibelius symphonies and violin concerto (with Camella Wicks). (The symphonies were released in America on Mercury LPs and now are in a 3-CD Finlandia set.) Ehrling visited the aged Sibelius to seek the composer's intentions but, perhaps too old to care any more, was told only to use his own imagination. He didn't, but rather in six sessions in 1952 and 1953 produced a set of dutiful, workmanlike accounts that even at the time were criticized for "demystifying" the music. Indeed, there are disappointments – the recording sounds dull, climaxes are distorted, tympani are shy, and some of the exposed low brass in the second movement is rough. But overall there's a pervasive feeling of chaste dignity and sober control that serves its historical role well – to introduce Sibelius's entire symphonic output by letting the music speak for itself, so that its inherent drama and vision were a valid reflection of the scores, without an infusion of interpretive personality that could be mistaken for the composer's and unduly influence those who might be encouraged to follow.
The next cycle was completed in 1955 by Anthony Collins, who was far more experienced as a violist in and manager of the London Symphony and as a film composer than as a conductor. Collins, too, sought the composer's advice, but in response to a lengthy telegram of detailed questions received in reply, "Conductor must have liberty to get performance living." Unlike Ehrling, Collins rose to the challenge with hair-raisingly vital and incisive readings (on London LPs, now on Beulah CDs). Due in equal parts to the transparency and depth of London's "ffrr" (full frequency range recording) technique, and the precision and excellence of the London Symphony's playing, these readings revel in the sheer wonder of the scores' shifting textures, which add a level of subtle meaning that prior recordings couldn't capture. Combined with Collins' sense of excitement and inspiration, they pack a visceral wallop that transcends their historical importance and still places them in the very front rank.
According to conventional wisdom, Sibelius's popularity peaked but then severely waned. In his first trip abroad in 1914 America gave him a hero's welcome and by 1935 he topped a survey of 12,000 New York Philharmonic broadcast listeners, even ahead of Beethoven. Yet, the plaudits were far from unanimous. Critic Virgil Thompson slammed the Symphony # 2 as "vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description." Scholarly opinion shifted as well – in the 1960s, Dr. William B. Over relegated Sibelius to "a cul de sac in the history of the symphony – unlike Mahler and Bruckner his influence was not seminal; he has no intellectual heirs and assigns. What moved us 30 years ago now seems like windy rhetoric. The mainstream of music has flowed in a different channel." Part of the problem was that cultural leaders became so enamored of serial music that Sibelius seemed sadly out of touch with even his own generation. And while often feted for birthdays and other celebrations as an aged but enduring symbol of Finnish national pride, Sibelius had written nothing of consequence since the mid-1920s and thus seemed a sedentary relic.
Public attitudes may have been soured by another factor. Sibelius's devotion to Finland provided him with inspiration and insulation from outside influences that would have diluted his vision. Yet that same vision was blinded to forces shaping the rest of the world - including such minor distractions as fascism and genocide. His allegiance before and during World War II was to any nation fighting Finland's arch-enemy Russia. Although he apparently expressed private misgivings, in 1935 he attended a banquet in his honor and accepted a medal from Hitler, and in a 1942 radio address praising common links in the countries' cultures, he thanked Germany for a Sibelius Society founded by propaganda minister Goebbels. Even so, a constant stream of recordings, especially of the Second, attest to resurgent, if not entirely undimmed, popularity.
The first standalone version of the Symphony # 2 was by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony (1935, now on a Pearl CD), who also claim the distinction of the first remake of a Sibelius symphony (1951, the last recording Koussevitzky made). In a memorial tribute that year, Sibelius said that Koussevitzky "performed my work with supreme mastery. I shall ever be deeply grateful to him for all that he has done for my art." Koussevitzky's approach was equally personal but more subtle than that of Kajanus, trading unfettered impulse and visceral thrills for calculated moderation and atmospheric vision, as he smoothes over rhythmic syncopations, dynamic outbursts and textural shifts for continuous structural evolution. Thus, the opening seems somnolent, but its sense of mystery and anticipation effectively paves the way for the towering climaxes yet to come, and the excited transition to the finale pours out into the extraordinary nobility of the grand theme. Overall, Koussevitzky takes a long view of the work, and exudes an aura of maturity and deep confidence, as if to assure us that it indeed is a masterpiece.
Arturo Toscanini was one of the first foreign conductors to take an interest in Sibelius, and began to program his short pieces in 1904. His involvement with the Symphony # 2 was brief but intense – he played it only four times from 1938 to 1940. Fortunately, three were recorded - a June 10, 1938 BBC concert (EMI), and NBC concerts of February 18, 1939 (Dell'Arte) and December 7, 1940 (BMG or Naxos). While the differences are rather slight, the BBC is slightly more relaxed and with a fuller acoustic (offset by a cruder recording), the 1939 NBC is more brusque, and the 1940 boasts the best sound - relatively clear and well-balanced. Louis Biancolli's description of the 1939 concert as "a masterpiece of concentrated energy, succinctly eloquent, crisply phrased and brilliantly dramatic in buildup" could apply to the others just as well. The 1940 rendition was part of an all-Sibelius concert that was recorded in full, and includes a meltingly lovely Swan of Tuonela and scorchingly intense accounts of Lemminkäinen's Return and Finlandia. All display an extreme attention to the dictates of the score, chiseled playing and tense, nervous energy, ironically reflecting more of the icy chill of Finland than the sunny warmth of the Mediterranean that gave rise to both the Second Symphony and Toscanini himself.
Leopold Stokowski first conducted the Second in 1912,
Sir Thomas Beecham discovered Sibelius in the early 1930s
Sir John Barbirolli, too, led a brisk but somewhat routine 1946 studio Second (with the New York Philharmonic, now on Dutton), that was fully eclipsed by a later venture – this time with the Royal Philharmonic in 1962 (Chesky) in an absolutely gripping reading of intense personality in which every note seems infused with feeling. As a result, it seems vivid despite its leisurely pace, thus illustrating the phenomenon of tempos being perceived more as a matter of precision and balance than actual speed (a marvel often observed in Toscanini readings, which always tend to seem faster than they really are). Barbirolli presents a complex bundle of atmospheric emotions abetted by superlative playing and recording. Thus, the first movement exudes a tangible feeling of probing mystery, the second evokes grand thoughts through colorful textures that range from intentionally bland to urgent emphasis, the third snarls with manic energy and the finale soars with giddy acceleration (the impact of both movements accentuated by an extremely idyllic respites).
Also deeply personal is the final recording by Leonard Bernstein. His brash 1966 New York Philharmonic studio recording (Sony) applies his trademark energy to push the score's inflections and takes just enough liberties with the tempos to invigorate the composer's structural conception without overriding it. His 1986 Vienna Philharmonic concert (DG), though, uses a majestic pace (a full seven minutes longer than his own already broad 1966 pacing of 44½) and thick sonorities to summon shades of Bruckner, burdening much of the music with more weight than it often can bear. While the finale assumes a potent grandeur of overwhelming impact, elsewhere little light peers from the pervasive gloom, and the episodes of the second movement seem like random events, in which all sense of continuity and musical logic is lost. As much as I love nearly all else the mature Bernstein produced, this strikes me as one of his few misses, more a musical dissection than a celebration of life so essential to this composer. It's all the more curious when considered beside a fabulous 1990 Vienna Sibelius First (DG) that bristles throughout with taut, lean vigor.
Although we can only wonder at what a mystic like Furtwängler would have achieved with such suitable material, the similarly-oriented Hermann Abendroth gives a partial answer in a Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra concert (1951, Arlecchino), treating the first movement as an intellectual process of constant, logical, organic growth from a placid opening toward a final overwhelming climax, the second as a pitched battle between suppressed ambition and wild visceral outbursts, the third as thick and tentative, and the finale as nervous and frantic, burying its gravity beneath a feeling of a vertiginous waltz, arising from the fastest tempos on record. Far removed from the mainstream, Abendroth's take is both fascinating and challenging - and just a bit dangerous.
George Szell's acclaimed 1966 Concertgebouw Second (Philips) deserves special recognition for the ugliest LP cover, a blurry, grayish brown close shot of the wet seashore. Fortunately, the dull monotony of the photo is as far removed as could be from the gleaming lucidity of the reading. While fairly straight-forward, the playing of the famed ensemble is magnificent, with precise rhythms, finely graded dynamics and luminous textures, featuring prominent woodwinds that so often are overwhelmed in Sibelius recordings by the masses of strings and brilliant brass. Eschewing any sense of interpretation, the result proves the effectiveness of the composer's scoring to evoke the splendor of his conception.
A certain pride of place must go to Finnish conductors, whose readings presumably benefit from a cultural affinity with the composer that translates into interpretive insight. At the end of his career, Tunno Hannikainen led a remarkably accomplished 1968 recording with the Sinfonia of London (rumored to be the London Symphony Orchestra, and certainly sounding far richer than the chamber-sized group invoked by its nominal title). Cited by Time in 1942 for his "thunderous" interpretations of Sibelius, Hannikainen led the Helsinki Symphony for a dozen years, after spending 20 years in the US, including Duluth, which he said reminded him of the climate of his native country. The slightly crude quality of both the performance and recording serve to suggest wholesome substance and authenticity, with the finale's variegated moods and ultimate catharsis fueled by uncommonly sharp brass accents and loud tympani.
Fellow Finn Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra produced a complete 1997 cycle (Bis) that boasts a Second comprised of carefully-judged beautiful balances and organic bloom rather than surging drama or startling edges. Vänskä boasted of his slavish adherence to the score and so eschews any attempt at personal interpretation. Seemingly effortlessly, yet with deep attention, Vänskä and the Lahti unfold the second movement in particular with inexorable but calm logic and nestle the powerful climaxes of the finale within passages of exquisite repose, as if to document their profound love of their country, seeking to persuade rather than overwhelm their listeners.
A final Finn, Okko Kamu, gained notice by winning the Karajan conducting competition in 1969. The next year he split a Sibelius symphony cycle with his mentor for Deutsche Grammophon. Karajan's readings of the last four symphonies remain famed for their controlled beauty. Kamu led the Helsinki radio symphony orchestra in the First and Third and Karajan's own Berlin Philharmonic in the Second. (Karajan would cut his own Second with the Berlin Philharmonic for EMI in 1981.) Their approaches are fundamentally similar – slow and polished – and produced a well-unified cycle, although the 24-year old Kamu manages to add to the second movement some impulsive fits of volatility that Karajan never would have abided.
Close by geographically, just across the Gulf of Finland, lies Estonia. The most striking feature of the Sibelius symphony CDs Neeme Järvi cut with the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra is the bizarre quadrilingual "WARNING" emblazoned on the covers that guides would-be buyers to the back, where the following appears: "Contrary to established practice this recording retains the staggering dynamics of the ORIGINAL performance. This may damage your loudspeakers, but given first-rate playback equipment you are guaranteed a truly remarkable musical and audio experience. Good luck!" Those intrepid enough to assume such a risk found a clear recording of wide dynamic range, soaring strings, punchy brass and rich bass that tended to spotlight the various instrumental textures but in retrospect and even at the time hardly seemed to merit the full marketing hype. The performance itself (assuming anyone cared) is well-judged with little pause for sentiment yet without feeling rushed or peremptory in any way, leaving the energy to emerge from the recording itself.
In a rare instance of father and son successfully treading common ground, Neeme's son Paavo Jarvi led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the Sibelius Second in 2002 for Telarc, another label that prides itself on sonic quality. Paavo's disc is notable for fine, if more smoothly integrated, sound and a patient unfolding of the work. Another welcome feature is the companion work - rather than the usual fillers of Sibelius short pieces (or nothing at all), it includes the Fifth Symphony of fellow Estonian Eduard Tubin (which Neeme had recorded for Bis) that is propelled with constantly evolving energy, bristles with huge tympani-fueled climaxes and fascinates with bold orchestration.
Before leaving Scandanavia, Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (1996, EMI) combine a fine, idiomatic reading with a truly spectacular recording that achieves a rare and striking balance between vivid detail of each set of instruments and a rich, credible ensemble sound in which we hear not only the blend of the full orchestra but each component of the complex sonic mix. Especially wondrous are the brass, which present a burnished bloom without the sharp raspiness that otherwise might threaten to tear the carefully-woven texture.
One more personal favorite hails from Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1959, Mercury). At barely 39 minutes, it's the only account from the stereo era that tracks the swift pacing of the pioneers. Indeed, it approaches Toscanini in its fleet visceral excitement, but abetted here by sharply defined playing and superbly clear recording, all the more remarkable for the use of only three well-placed microphones as part of Mercury's famed "Living Presence" method, resulting in a wide-spread but convincing stereo soundstage image.
Nearly every one of the 30+ recordings of the Second that I've heard presents the work with idiomatic integrity and often a fascinating distinctive touch or two. While I find that the ones treated above hold (for me, at least) the greatest historical, interpretive or sonic significance and interest, many others seem notable as well:
Of the many books written about Sibelius, the vast majority of authors project an unusual air of advocacy, as if they felt a pressing need to justify their enthusiasm and to defend their subject against a dubious world's neglect. Karl Ekman's Jean Sibelius - His Life and Personality (Knopf, 1938) conveys the composer's thoughts and attitudes with lengthy quotations, including many from his private diaries. Bengt de Törne's Sibelius - A Close-Up (Houghton Mifflin, 1937) records conversations during the year the author studied orchestration with Sibelius. Simon Parmet, who had edited the Sibelius symphonies for publication, is able to claim unique authority for his Symphonies of Sibelius (Cassell, 1959), as the composer, who was concerned over distorted broadcasts he had heard from other countries, endorsed him to write a study of the symphonies in performance. The historical, social and musical background of Sibelius and his country are traced in Lisa de Gorog's From Sibelius to Sallinen - Finish Nationalism and the Music of Finland (Greenwood Press, 1989). A cogent analysis of the Sibelius symphonies is the Harold Truscott chapter in The Symphony (Pelican, 1967). For those more theoretically inclined, Lionel Pike's Beethoven, Sibelius and "the Profound Logic" (Athlone Press, 1978) traces the common characteristics of the symphonies of his two subjects to substantiate his bold claim that their achievements were comparable. A surprisingly prescient appraisal is by Duncan Hines in the 1908 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The full orchestral score has been reprinted in paperback by Dover, combined with the Symphony # 1. An extraordinarily thorough modern resource, with film, pictures, music, scores and text, is the Sibelius website produced by the Finnish Club of Helsinki as part of their "Electronic Memory of the Finnish People" project. This article is indebted to all of these, together with the others I have quoted.
And I must conclude with a huge expression of gratitude to the Public Library of the District of Columbia, from whose extensive circulating collection of scores, biographies and other music books I was able to borrow nearly all of the foregoing volumes.
Copyright 2007 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1998-2007 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.