About this Recording
8.111399 - SIBELIUS, J.: Symphonies Nos. 4, 6 and 7 (Premiere Recordings) (Stokowski, Schneevoigt, Koussevitzky) (1932-1934)

Stokowski, Schnéevoigt and Koussevitzky conduct Sibelius
Symphonies Nos 4, 6 and 7


Of the three conductors represented on this release, embracing three of Jean Sibelius’s great and masterly symphonies, two have retained their hold on the public’s consciousness through their considerable reputation that is maintained through a legacy of recordings. They are Serge Koussevitzky and Leopold Stokowski.

What then of the Finnish conductor Georg Schnéevoigt? He was born on 8 November 1872 in Vyborg. Initially Schnéevoigt was a cellist, as an itinerant musician and not least as principal cellist of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, holding that position from 1896 until 1902. Following this period he undertook numerous conducting assignments—to Munich, Riga (he founded the Philharmonic Orchestra there) and Stockholm; and, further afield, to Los Angeles and to Sydney. From 1930 until his death, Schnéevoigt was the Principal Conductor of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. Schnéevoigt died in Malmö (Sweden) in November 1947 at the age of 75.

On 3 June 1934, in Studio No1 at the Abbey Road Studios in London with the visiting Finnish National Orchestra, Schnéevoigt made the first recording of Sibelius’s Symphony No 6, as included on this release. That honour would have fallen to Robert Kajanus, a close friend of Sibelius, whose death in 1933 intervened in plans for Kajanus to record all of the Finnish master’s symphonies. (These recordings are also available on Naxos.) Like Kajanus, Schnéevoigt was close to Sibelius, a dedicated and perceptive interpreter of his music. His conducting of the composer’s Sixth Symphony is lucid and controlled. The work itself was first heard in February 1923, in Helsinki, with Sibelius conducting. The composer himself likened the score to the musical equivalent of cold water. But the effect is not one of shock; rather, within any perceived icy climes, one registers with gratification the richness of the Palestrina-like polyphony and, despite the economy of gesture and scoring, a deep-seated passion that from time to time rises to the surface. It is reported, reliably or otherwise, that Schnéevoigt used to cry when conducting Sibelius’s music. Although the Sixth Symphony is not overt in its emotionalism, one can sense in this performance that Schnéevoigt was very caring as to the music’s shape, direction and tempo-relationships, and that the Finnish players are very involved in performing this enigmatic if compelling symphony by their country’s leading composer. Of particular note is the very fleet tempo that Schnéevoigt adopts for the third movement, notably quicker than many other interpreters, as part of a clear-sighted, committed and often-ardent performance.

Sibelius’s close-following Seventh Symphony, his last—although the Eighth, perhaps completed and then destroyed by the composer, continues to be discussed, however ephemeral its existence might have been—is conducted by the Russian Serge Koussevitzky. He was born on 26 July 1874 near Moscow into a musical family from which his first tuition came. Before developing his career as a conductor, which would come to fruition in 1924 when he was appointed Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Koussevitzky was a double bass player. He gave recitals on and composed a concerto for his instrument; in 1894 he also joined the Bolshoy Theatre Orchestra, becoming Principal of the double bass section in 1901 until 1905. During Koussevitzky’s early days (before the 1917 Revolution) he founded a publishing house, accepted conducting engagements in the West and also formed his own orchestra to tour in Russia.

After the momentous events of the Revolution, although remaining in Russia for a while, Koussevitzky left for Paris and cultivated his conducting engagements, often leading premières of new music, not least in Boston where such composers as Hindemith (Concert Music for Strings and Brass), Honegger (Symphony No 1), Prokofiev (Symphony No 4, in its original version) and Stravinsky (Symphony of Psalms) had important premières. American composers such as Barber, Copland, Harris, Piston and Schuman were also commissioned. In 1940 Koussevitzky, a dedicated teacher, established the Koussevitzky Music Center at Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony’s summer home)—where Leonard Bernstein was a pupil. Then, in 1942, in memory of his late wife, Natalie, Koussevitzky formed the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. This commissioned, among other notable works, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, Aaron Copland’s Symphony No 3, Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (of which Bernstein conducted the American première) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitzky was also the instigator of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Koussevitzky’s recording of that, together with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, is on Naxos 8.110105. Koussevitzky died in 1951.

Here Koussevitzky conducts Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony in a famous recording made in London at a concert at Queen’s Hall, then the venue for the BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (the BBC had taken over responsibility for these concerts a few years earlier), but which was destroyed by bombing during World War II, with the recently formed BBC Symphony Orchestra, of which Dr Adrian Boult (he would be knighted in 1937) was the founder and Principal Conductor. The performance is intense and spaciously unfolds, perhaps a little cautiously, if also with volatility. This magnificent one-movement symphony journeys seemlessly to a fulfilled conclusion, at which point Koussevitzky adds a trumpet to strengthen the final assertion of C major.

Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, completed in 1911, is in four movements and reflects the ‘solitude and pain’ that the composer spoke of as enduring at this time. For all the severity of Sibelius’s style—nothing is superfluous—the symphony proceeds from darkness to uncertainty with occasional glimpses of brighter moods (the second movement Scherzo) and impassioned outbursts (the Il tempo largo third movement). The moderately paced first movement embraces strength as well as elusiveness, suggesting the undertaking of an isolated journey. The second movement offers some relief with dance-like writing but which dissipates to an uncertain conclusion to usher in the broad slow movement, lonely-sounding but rising to an emotional outpouring. The finale has the momentum of a journey through a snow-clad landscape, and even intimates the dawn of a new day, but the closing bars have a ‘no way out’ finality as well as unrelieved uncertainty. A comment specific to Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, made by a reviewer at the time of the work’s first performance, is as follows, that the work is ‘A declaration of war against superficiality, admiration of outward devices, empty grandiloquence and overwhelming materialism.’

Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) was born in London. He became one of the most charismatic and adventurous conductors of his time, notable too for the luxurious sound he conjured from orchestras but also earning a less-impressive reputation of someone who tinkered with others’ scores, not least their orchestrations. To redress this, he made some splendid orchestral transcriptions of the music of JS Bach. Stokowski has been termed both a charlatan and a great conductor. His account of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony might be thought brusque and hasty in the first movement—this is nothing ‘like an adagio’!—although there can be no doubt about the considerable playing of The Philadelphia Orchestra; and the second movement is somewhat tentative and hesitant, while the vast, bleak Largo third movement is a little too unsettled. But the finale has a compelling wariness, Stokowski opting first for glockenspiel then for tubular bells; strikingly so! The score requests ‘Glocken’, which has been interpreted as either instrument—Sibelius confirmed glockenspiel to Leslie Heward. As conducted by Stokowski, the traversal of this finale is hesitant if determined, quite compelling, as withdrawn as it is stark, and ending in an emotional cul-de-sac, the final bars made mournful by Stokowski and with an unmarked if effective broadening.

Colin Anderson

Producer’s Note

Owing to the financial constraints of the Great Depression, Stokowski’s recording of the Fourth Symphony was made with reduced forces in a small, acoustically dry studio. Fewer than sixty players took part in the session, with the string contingent cut by half. The wider frequency range technology RCA Victor began using around this time (the “HQ” in the matrix prefix stood for “high quality”), however, resulted in a recording with great presence for the period. Some digital reverberation has been added to this transfer to counteract the dryness of the venue.

HMV chose not to release this version of the Fourth, at first hoping Robert Kajanus would record it for their Sibelius Society series. When his death the following year made that impossible, they turned to his compatriot Georg Schnéevoigt, whose performance of the symphony at a concert in London was recorded on 4 June 1934. That version remained unissued on 78 rpm, and the first British recording was ultimately made by Beecham three years later. The day before the concert, however, Schnéevoigt recorded the present version of the Sixth Symphony in the Abbey Road Studios, which became part of the Society releases.

The live recording of the Seventh Symphony under Koussevitzky posed 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 cut-offs 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. Its uninterrupted nature, however, preserves the white-hot momentum the conductor was able to achieve in concert performances.

The sources for the transfers were American Victor shellac copies: a “Z” pressing for the Fourth Symphony, and pre-war “Gold” label pressings for the others. A flaw in the master of the first side of the second movement of the Fourth causes momentary rotating drop-outs in a few places on all pressings.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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