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CD Review

Jean Sibelius

Orchestral Music

  • "Karelia" Suite Op. 11 (1893) 1
  • "Finlandia" Op. 26 (1899) 2
  • "The Swan of Tuonela" from the "Lemminkäinen" Suite Op. 22 (1895) 3
  • "Valse triste" Op. 44/3 from the incidental music to "Kuolema" (1904) 4
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1905) 5
  • Symphony #1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899) 3
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 43 (1901) 6
1 Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (1968)
2 London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (1988)
3 National Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (1976)
4 Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (1959)
5 Zino Francescatti, Violin/New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein (1963)
6 New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Schippers (1963)
Sony SB2K63260 2CDs
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I normally do not review discs I have to pay for, but this is an exceptional exception. I will concentrate most of my attention to the first disc because I am familiar with the recordings from other sources. I should say, however, that this is an "Essential" release.

The Stokowski recordings come from the conductor's penultimate year. At 94 he recorded this in the studio with an orchestra put together by Columbia mainly making recordings by Stokowski. This is not unlike the "Columbia" SO that worked for Bruno Walter during that great conductor's Indian Summer, though I would argue that this orchestra is better.

When this recording was released on LP I was disappointed. The sound seemed thin, the playing anemic, there was a lack of detail. I ascribed it to the fact that Stokowski, at 94, was having an off day. I also saw some of the recording sessions while watching a Dan Rather interview with Stokowski. (More on that later.) I remember thinking, while watching, that Stokowski, while obviously old, did not seem really 'off'. He worked the orchestra like the magician of lore. I began to think that perhaps the problem was not in the conductor but in the recording itself. This impression was strengthened by a conversation I had with Ed Johnson. Ed worked a lot with Stokowski during the Maestro's last years. He told me that the engineer, Roy Emerson, did not feel that Stokowski was 'right' for Sibelius and 'thinned' the sound.

So, when I got the CD I was full of anticipation. Well, Ed was right and Roy can go to hell. This is one of the greatest Sibelius Firsts ever!! I compared it with two recent recordings, Sir Colin Davis on RCA and a BIS recording with Osmo Vänskä conducting the Lahti Symphony. All you have to do is listen to the phrasing of the clarinet at the outset. You know that this is music making of a world no longer with us, there is a desolate, other worldly (dare I say Nordic?) atmosphere to it that the latest recordings miss. I noticed that the writers of the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs used similar phrases when discussing Anthony Collins' recording of the First. It may well be that the world of Sibelius is best caught by those who knew his times as did Stokowski. Come to think of it, maybe Stokowski's Sibelius is HIP!:-)

I mentioned the Dan Rather interview. You really ought to try to watch this if you haven't. I can provide video copies for interested parties. In the interview Stokowski excerpts his own dry humor at Rather's expense in a couple places. Towards the end, however, Rather asks Stokowski about interpretations. Stokowski points out that it is not enough to play the music. He drives the point home as he says, 'If your parents had no emotion, you would not exist. It is simple: emotion - life, or lifeless.'

There is no indication that this set was made using 20-Bit mastering but strings are fuller, warmer than in the LP. Bass is deep and firm. In fact, the strings are more dominant now and feathery, unlike the LP. The sound also has more reverberation to it. Listen to the lovely articulation of the harp. (Sorry, an aside as I listen and write.) There is excitement, there is passion, there is everything I had expected from Stokowski.

The 'Swan of Tuonela' is no less successfully transformed. The swan now moves like phantom. The difference is a metamorphosis. I'd recommend this set just for the Stokowski, but there is more.

Francesscati's version of the violin concerto may not be to everyone's taste, and Bernstein does not have the nuance of Beecham. Still, I have friends who consider this their favorite version of the piece. Francesccati does not 'emerge' as does Heifetz in the Beecham led recording, and I prefer that kind of eerieness. On the other hand, Francesscati is warmer than Heifetz. I find it an acceptable alternative view.

I was frankly surprised to see that Sony had not included Bernstein's or Ormandy's Sibelius' 2nd. Seeing Schippers' name was another surprise. While I am familiar with it, I have not heard any of this conductor's recordings. I do know that he conducted the Cincinnati Symphony for several years, and recall a Schubert's 9th with fondness. {Update: thanks to the Internet, I have been informed that Schippers was the 9th Music Director of the Cincinnati Orchestra. Predecessors included Stokowski. He served from 1970 to 77 when he died. He is credited with increasing the repertoire and expertise of the Cincinnati Orchestra.) Okay, he ain't Barbirolli and the sound, made a year later than Sir John's, isn't as rich. It is a fleeter, lighter Sibelius and I find that valid, if not to my taste. I am glad to hear it instead of yet another Bernstein or Ormandy. But, let's face facts, if you are looking for 'names' it will be Stokowski people latch on to, and Stokowski's 'magic' is apparent in contrast with

So, I'd give this a strong recommendation just for Stokowski. The rest is nice to have and many of you may like it more than I. I cannot imagine a better recommendation for a starter who wants both.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II