Sibelius Orchestral Works

Author: 
Stephen Johnson

Sibelius Orchestral Works

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 7
  • Karelia Overture
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphony No. 6

The name Anthony Collins (1893-1963) probably doesn't mean a great deal to the majority of younger Gramophone readers, but for quite a few serious Sibelius aficionados his 1950s Decca recordings hold cult status. Of course cults thrive on obscurity, and the fact that the last time these recordings appeared was on Decca's budget Eclipse label, on LPs that were generously filled but cut at a fatally low level will, I'm sure, have hardened some people's devotion. But now here they are again, on even more generous Beulah CDs, sounding—on the whole—magnificent: an excellent chance for reappraisal.
Just in case that 'on the whole' sounds ominous, I'd better say that my only reservation about the sound was the slightly acid treble tone in parts of the First Symphony—probably not Beulah's fault. Otherwise the original recordings are revealed for the fine achievements they were: beautifully balanced, clear and vivid—the sound of the bass drum in Nightride and Sunrise couldn't be more spine-tingling in modern full-digital Technicolor, but it doesn't stand out unnaturally either.
It allows us to hear these performances in intimate detail—which is how they deserve to be heard. I can think of very few recent recordings—the early Rattle/EMI Fifth perhaps, or some of Jarvi's BIS versions—which show such a feeling for Sibelian atmosphere. There's more to this than sound-quality. Collins is a first-rate musical landscape-painter. He doesn't just give us the bold sweeping brush-strokes, important as they are; he shows how the landscapes team with minute life. Rustling string textures aren't blandly homogenized—tiny details catch the ear, and then vanish again. Woodwind bird calls or horn calls can be acutely expressive—some passages remind me of Sibelius's comments about quasi-human voices in the nature sounds around his forest-home. But exaggeration is alien to the Collins approach. Nothing is forced, almost everything is fresh and vital. There have been more elemental Sevenths—I could have done with more of the Koussevitzky charge there, and with a less reticent trombone solo. But there isn't a hint that the LSO are over-familiar with this music, not even in No. 2—as egregious then as it is now.
Not everything convinces. Why, for instance, does Collins re-write the timpani part in the coda of the Second Symphony? Not only do the drums now follow the basses, the rhythm is changed too. Still with the timpanist, it is surprising to find his quiet but important contribution at fig. 5 in the Seventh Symphony missing (15'27'')—another editorial decision? But the insights heavily outweigh that sort of thing. In fact the insight Collins offers often derives from nothing more than taking Sibelius at his word—holding to the tempo as the finale theme emerges from the scherzo triplets in the last movement of the Third Symphony, or as the central statement of the trombone theme in No. 7 gives way to what seems like faster activity. After these, other conductors' rhetorical allargandos can sound inorganic, or worse, ostentatious.
It isn't only in the symphonies that the Collins touch is refreshing. Pohjola's Daughter comes to life as effectively as the symphonies, and Vol. 3 contains a real rarity, an entirely satisfactory Nightride and Sunrise. However, I think the star performance of these first three issues is that of the Sixth Symphony—so elusive, so easy to ruin by over-interpreting. I was fascinated by what seemed like a hint of Russian flavouring in the string chants of the coda—well why not? On paper the violin lines look strikingly northern Slavonic. Again, Collins doesn't force it. Hearing these not long after going through some 25 Sibelius Fifths for Gramophone was like having my ears cleansed. I'm sure what Collins does with that deceptively 'accessible' work will be more than interesting.'

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