Sibelius Orchestral Works

Author: 
John Steane

Sibelius Orchestral Works

  • Symphony No. 2
  • Pohjola's Daughter
  • Legends, 'Lemminkäinen Suite', No. 2, The Swan of Tuonela (1893, rev 1897 & 1900)
  • Legends, 'Lemminkäinen Suite', No. 4, Lemminkäinen's return (1895, rev 1897 & 1900)
  • Finlandia

As the symphony’s finale builds to its apotheosis, you’ll have to contend with trumpets (doubling and eventually dominating strings in the second main idea, from 9'32'' track 4) that sound as if they more usually play at wedding parties for The Godfather. But then, a fast and wide vibrato is a general feature of the orchestra’s higher singing voices in the symphony. And this is presumably how Toscanini liked his trumpets (and woodwinds and strings) to sound when singing, just as he liked them to deliver more forceful, rhythmical figures sec and with a vengeance – the ‘vengeance’ perhaps a result of close microphones and/or little evidence of a hall acoustic. All of which means that if your notions of Nordic nobility in the symphony are gathered across the decades from recordings by Kajanus, Collins, Koussevitzky and Karajan, you should probably give Toscanini a wide berth.
If you did, however, you would be depriving yourself of maybe the most dramatically intense and physically exciting performances of the symphony and Pohjola’s Daughter ever recorded. Leaving aside matters of playing style (and the brass playing is more regulated in Pohjola’s Daughter), you still have the legendary focused tone and strength of feature (unanimous attack, pitching and articulation), no matter how fast the tempos – which are, of course, faster than average throughout (the symphony’s third movement Vivacissimo is exactly that, and the finale is never allowed to tread water).
Two earlier Toscanini accounts of the symphony either are obtainable (a 1939 NBC performance on dell’Arte) or have been (a generally less successful 1938 BBC Symphony Orchestra performance from EMI – 10/90). And the present Naxos 1940 accounts of the symphony and Pohjola’s Daughter are already available (at twice the price) in RCA’s Toscanini Edition. RCA and Naxos appear to disagree on the venue for the symphony (RCA’s booklet informs us that it was NBC’s Studio 8H), but they agree on the date, and the only audible difference lies in the more ‘filtered’ (and arguably smoother) sound of the Naxos transfer. The same could be said of Pohjola’s Daughter, but here Naxos have used a different source, with a noisier surface, though less flutter. By way of shorter items, the Naxos release offers, as does RCA’s, “The Swan of Tuonela” and Finlandia, but the RCA performances are later ones with cleaner, clearer and more boldly projected sound. Which leaves Naxos’s extra carrot (apart from the price) – a “Lemminkainen’s return” electric with energy. '

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