About this Recording
8.110168 - SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 7 / Tapiola (Koussevitzky) (1933-1940)

Great Conductors • Serge Koussevitzky

Great Conductors • Serge Koussevitzky

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Pohjola’s Daughter • The Maidens with the Roses • Tapiola • Symphony No. 7 in C major

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): The Last Spring


Sibelius was a composer with whom the émigré Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky developed a special relationship. Backed by the considerable financial security from his marriage in 1905 to Natalia Uskov, the daughter of a wealthy Russian tea merchant, Koussevitzky had been quick to consolidate his burgeoning European conducting career with the foundation in 1909 of his own publishing house, Editons Russes de Musique. This in turn led to the commissioning of a whole host of new works from the leading composers of the early twentieth century. Having left his homeland following the revolution in 1917, like so many of his contemporaries, he readily gravitated toward the artistic opportunities offered in the Unites States, where he succeeded Pierre Monteux as chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1924, a post he held for 25 years.


The works of Sibelius featured consistently in Koussevitzky’s programming in the United States and abroad. In the early 1930s, when the composer’s popularity was at a peak, the London-based Sibelius Society had embarked upon a series of state-funded recordings with the composer’s preferred conductor, friend and compatriot, Robert Kajanus, but after the death of the latter in 1933, the enterprise remained incomplete, and it was Koussevitzky together with Sir Thomas Beecham, who maintained performance and recording impetus, both receiving the composer’s imprimatur and conducting complete cycles of the symphonies. It was also Koussevitzky in association with the American critic Olin Downes, who most tenaciously pursued the composer for the elusive Eighth Symphony. Most evidence now points to the virtual completion, dissatisfaction and destruction of the work by the composer. With hindsight, this throws special light on the status of both the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola, his last tone-poem completed two years later in 1926.


Although the Seventh Symphony started life as a three-movement Fantasia sinfonica in 1918, midway through the composition of the Sixth Symphony, the extraordinary creative impetus of working concurrently on two symphonies seemed to extend the overlapping process to the musical fabric of the latest symphony itself. The telescoping of the structure into one movement and the radical control of differing, simultaneous tempi on the broadest scale were revolutionary for their time. Although the original sections remain apparent, long drawn pedal-points and rhythmic flux support thematic development and cross-referencing to achieve an awesome sense of organic growth and flexibility. Both works were long in gestation and not completed until 1923 and 1924 respectively.


In many respects Tapiola develops the process even further. Almost nothing moves in the work that is not contained within the deceptively simple opening thematic motive. Symphonic and programmatic elements are combined and developed in an ultimate synthesis of the two major inspirational sources that preoccupied the composer. As a Pantheistic statement of the power of Nature in a world this time significantly unpeopled by the heroes of the Kalevala, much explored in earlier works, the God of the forest reigns supreme and alone. With the Seventh Symphony, Tapiola stands as Sibelius’ stylistic summation. How to follow this proved to be an intractable problem, casting a long shadow over the fate of the Eighth Symphony, the ensuing thirty years’ compositional silence, and indeed any work that was not going merely to repeat the language of the hard-won creative peaks of the early 1920s.


Pohjola’s Daughter, composed much earlier, in 1906, is also pertinently subtitled Symphonic Fantasy. Although the weight of inspiration draws on the graphic potential of the hero Väinämöinen’s seductive sleigh-ride encounter with Pohjola, the Daughter of the North, seated on a rainbow weaving a cloth of gold, many of the seeds of Sibelius’s more mature abstract style are already discernible. The two-fold emergence of the hero’s fanfares over an ostinato motif and their key placing within the structure clearly foreshadow the function of the famous trombone motif in the Seventh Symphony.


Koussevitzky’s live BBC performance of the Seventh Symphony has remained a landmark of the catalogue. Its intensity, especially in the closing pages, has rarely been matched let alone surpassed. The fiery temperament heard in the music was matched by the conductor’s rehearsal technique with the orchestra. Formed in 1930 and trained by Boult to standards that quickly challenged the hegemony of the great European and American orchestras, the BBC was avidly courting other conductors of international repute on a guest basis. Koussevitzky had not appeared in London since 1925 with the London Symphony Orchestra. His raising of the profile of several contemporary British composers in Boston, notably Vaughan Williams and Walton, substantially contributed towards breaking down initial resistance from Boult to engage him for the first London Music Festival promoted by the BBC in May 1933. This consisted of three Brahms centenary concerts conducted by Boult with three concerts showcasing Koussevitzky, including Sibelius’s Seventh together with Bax’s Second Symphony. Koussevitzky’s dictatorial stance did not go down well with the orchestra, but the experience nevertheless engendered sufficient mutual respect for an invitation to be given to return for the 1935 festival. On this occasion, however, he shared concerts not only with Boult, but also with Toscanini on his first appearance with a British orchestra. Realising that his temperamental ace was likely to be comprehensively trumped, Koussevitzky’s tactics remained cajoling, but mellower in the realisation that he could probably achieve more by exploiting the threat of the imminent greater Toscanini rage factor.


Although Kajanus had set down the first commercial recording of Tapiola with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1932, Koussevitzky’s Boston recording is also possessed of an elemental power and unity that tap the same spring as the symphony. The Maidens with the Roses from the rarely heard incidental music for Strindberg’s Swanwhite and the orchestration of Grieg’s evergreen song find Koussevitzky in more relaxed mood, offering perfect foils to the larger-scale works.


Ian Julier


Producer’s Note


This disc and its companion (Naxos Historical 8.110170) contain all the Sibelius repertoire recorded commercially by Serge Koussevitzky.  In addition to the items on these discs, he re-recorded the Second Symphony in 1950.


The sources for the present transfers were prewar U.S. Victor “Gold” label pressings for Pohjola’s Daughter and the Seventh Symphony; Victor “Red Seal Scroll” pressings for the Swanwhite excerpt; and a combination of laminated Austrailian HMVs and wartime Victors for Tapiola.  The program concludes with Koussevitzky’s only other recording of a work by a Scandinavian composer, Grieg’s Last Spring, transferred from a combination of wartime and postwar Victors.


The live recording of the Seventh Symphony poses many restoration challenges.  Side Three is a dubbing, and there are metal mastering problems in several of the other sides.  The set was done continuously with abrupt cutoffs at the ends of sides, making it more difficult to match the sonic properties of the sides than the case would be with a studio recording.  However, its uninterrupted nature preserves the white-hot momentum Koussevitzky was able to achieve in concert performances.


Mark Obert-Thorn

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