About this Recording
8.111393 - SIBELIUS, J.: Symphony No. 1 / Pohjola's Daughter / Tapiola (Kajanus Conducts Sibelius, Vol. 1) (1930-1932)

Kajanus conducts Sibelius • Volume 1
Symphony No 1 • Pohjolaʼs Daughter • Tapiola


Robert Kajanus, the Finnish conductor and composer of Swedish descent, was born in Helsinki on 2 December 1856 and died there on 6 July 1933. Although posterity recalls him first and foremost as a conductor, he was also a prolific composer. His catalogue embraces over two hundred works often inspired by the folklore and traditional melodies of his homeland. Kajanus was well-travelled in his student days, not least to Paris and Leipzig, his mentors including the conductor Hans Richter (who gave the premières of major works by Brahms, Bruckner, Elgar and Wagner) and the composer Johan Svendsen. Kajanus’s postgraduate work was undertaken in Dresden before he returned to Helsinki to form the Philharmonic Society (today the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra). Kajanus’s fifty-year tenure created an ensemble of a very high standard. In 1888 Kajanus conducted the Finnish première of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. Kajanus also played an important part in his country’s music education. For nearly thirty years he was Director of Music at the University of Helsinki. His children, all carrying the family name, include two harpists and a violinist, all now deceased.

Robert Kajanus and Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) were close friends. Although Kajanus was an established composer before his younger compatriot started to climb this particular ladder of creativity, it is Sibelius who is now recognised as one of the supreme compositional creators. Nevertheless Kajanus was an exemplar as part of Sibelius’s development: Kajanus wrote a symphonic poem called Aino and Sibelius responded with one of his own, the ambitious Kullervo. Kajanus commissioned Sibelius to compose what would turn out to be the orchestral En Saga, and so Sibelius reciprocated with a dedication to his benefactor. Kajanus’s reputation as a conductor endures given his association as a trusted interpreter of Sibelius’s music and through the recordings he made of it. Although they are now eighty years old they remain essential listening for aficionados of the composer owing to the fact that these versions carry Sibelius’s imprimatur.

Kajanus made the first recordings of Sibelius’s First, Second, Third and Fifth Symphonies, all set down in London in the early-1930s. The plan was that Kajanus would document all seven symphonies as well as numerous Sibelius orchestral pieces, but his death in 1933 prevented this. In 1930 the Finnish government and the Columbia record label joined in partnership in a wish to record Sibelius’s first two symphonies, the works of a then-living and highly admired composer. (Sibelius’s reputation somewhat diminished in the years following his death.) Kajanus was the conductor of choice, not least by the composer himself.

Sibelius completed his First Symphony in 1898. It was not the first Finnish symphony, for Sibelius had been beaten to that particular post by the very talented if sadly short-lived Ernst Mielck (1877–1899), dead aged 21 from tuberculosis, who had studied with Max Bruch in Berlin. Mielck’s example inspired Sibelius to plough on with his own début symphony. The first performance of Sibelius’s Symphony No 1 took place in 1899 in Helsinki, with the composer conducting. Immediately Sibelius made revisions and the subsequent version was first heard in July 1900—conducted by Robert Kajanus. It is a dramatic and image-creating work. On this, the work’s first recording, the opening clarinet solo is rendered dry-sounding and forlorn; we seem to be in contact with nature. Kajanus keeps the music on the move, such impetus avoiding stasis or sentimentality although the conductor introduces a natural ebb and flow. If the early-1930s recording is not fully able to contain the music’s wide dynamic range or open out enough at the loudest fortissimos, a great deal of information is captured, more than enough to indicate how this music sounded at its birth. Kajanus inspires incisive and disciplined playing that is fully conversant with the landscaping that this music can conjure—icy and strange—expansive passages made noble rather than hectoring. There may also be thought an element of being pedantic on Kajanus’s part, possibly as a result of rehearsing the London musicians before making a permanent document, yet there is no lack of intensity to the reading, and although Kajanus seems at times welded more to the letter rather than the spirit of the score, he yields movingly and with obvious affection to the ‘big tune’ of the finale.

Pohjola’s Daughter, one of Sibelius’s estimable tone poems, dates from 1906. The composer’s intention was to entitle the work Väinämöinen, after a character in the Kalevala (the Finnish national epic and such a source of stimulation for the composer) but was denied by his publisher. The first performance was given in St Petersburg in December 1906, Sibelius conducting the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. Väinämöinen catches sight of the beautiful ‘daughter of the North’. She is seated on a rainbow weaving a cloth of gold. Väinämöinen wants her to join him but he must perform a number of tasks first before claiming her hand. He fails and recognises that he must continue his journey alone. One of Sibelius’s supreme masterpieces, Pohjola’s Daughter opens with brooding solos, beginning with cello. Considerable atmosphere and tension are generated, Kajanus also alive to the music’s danger, splendour and wonderment, a vivid narrative that should not underestimate Sibelius’s powerful sense of structure.

Tapiola was Sibelius’s last major work (even though he had another thirty years to live—he died in 1957 at the age of 91). Arguably (and not just because of the work that Sibelius seems to have completed and then destroyed), Tapiola could be regarded as his Symphony No 8 (although fragments of that have recently come to light). The published score of Tapiola is headed as follows:

‘Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, /
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; /
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God, /
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.’

First heard in New York in 1926, conducted by Walter Damrosch (who had commissioned the work), Tapiola is another stellar example of Sibelius’s mastery of symphonic form—tension and resolution inexorably linked—that is also a graphic musical realisation of landscape and climate. Inspired by Finnish mythology—Tapio the god of the forest and his mysterious kingdom of Tapiola—Sibelius’s evocation of destructive winds and natural (frightening) phenomenon is vivid enough on its own terms and also bounded by compositional refinement. Tapiola, whether symphony-manqué or tone poem, or a combination of the two, is a remarkable signing-off—for although Sibelius had not designed Tapiola as a ‘last work’ (but, as we now know, he would not want to issue any further works of consequence, even the seemingly completed but destroyed Eighth Symphony, save for revising the Lemminkäinen Legends in 1939), then Tapiola proved to be great masterpiece to complete Sibelius’s catalogue of outstanding musical achievement.

Robert Kajanus gives a ‘warmer’ feel to this music than might have been the case. Rather than overexploit the music’s potential for threat and strangeness, Kajanus opts for something deft and spectral. He plays the ‘long game’ in terms of building the music’s menace and its most-gripping climax. In doing so we experience a less-windswept and overtly terrifying account that may be case and subsequently find ourselves re-perceiving this remarkable ‘farewell’ by a great composer.

Colin Anderson

Producerʼs Note

In 1930, the Finnish government arranged for the English Columbia label to make recordings of the first two symphonies of Jean Sibelius, contributing fifty thousand marks toward the project. The goal was to broaden interest in Finnish music throughout the world; and while Sibelius was already well known owing to shorter works such as Finlandia, The Swan of Tuonela and Valse Triste, his symphonies had never previously been recorded. Sibelius was invited to select a native-born interpreter to conduct the works, and had no hesitation in recommending composer/conductor Robert Kajanus (1856–1933). “Very many are the men who have conducted these symphonies during the last thirty years,” Sibelius wrote, “but there are none who have gone deeper and given them more feeling and beauty than Robert Kajanus.”

The orchestra of London’s Royal Philharmonic Society (the pre-Beecham “old RPO”) was engaged to record the first two symphonies and two movements from the Karelia Suite as fillers. Two years later, after the merger of Columbia and HMV into EMI, the latter label took up the cause with a series of “Sibelius Society” albums, the first of which featured Kajanus conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the Fifth Symphony and the two tone poems featured here. The Third Symphony and incidental music for Belshazzar’s Feast were also recorded during those sessions; but Kajanus’s death the following year put an end to his participation in the series.

The present is the first in a series of three volumes which will contain the complete Sibelius recordings of Robert Kajanus. For the transfers, I had the luxury of drawing upon five sets of the First Symphony, including both American and laminated Australian Columbia pressings. Most of the final transfer was taken from US Columbia “Viva-Tonal” pressings. The tone poems came from a single set of American Victor “Z” pressings, which like the Columbia “Vivas” were the quietest form of issue for these recordings.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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