These are important documents, providing priceless insight into the way the works were perceived by their early interpreters. The recordings were made within 15 years of the works’ premieres and allow us to hear views of canonical symphonies while they were still relatively unfamiliar.
Kajanus was Legge’s first choice to record for the Sibelius Society, and his interpretation of the Fifth Symphony is an outstanding achievement. It is characterised by straightforwardness – the conductor fully and transparently trusting the composer’s intentions. Kajanus’s intervention is felt only in small tempo changes – emphasising and enabling a player or a section more fully to reveal a contrast in character. He avoids over-emphatic gestures, and the music is the better for it. The soundscape is particularly clear and open. In part a tribute to the excellence of the original recording, part the quality of the 1932 LSO, but most of all, this is a reflection of the good work of the conductor. The complex rhythmic structure of the symphony is especially well realised, and there is careful attention to the clarity and vitality of each line of Sibelius’s complex layering hemiolas.
This is a recording that makes one feel that something of the musical essence of these works has been lost in the modern obsession with declamation and effect. Kajanus directs us to the complexity and craftsmanship of the texture, the subtle gradations of dynamic, and the directness of form and structure. With the exception of a single careless splice in the first movement (adding nearly a beat to the scherzo episode) the remastering is excellent. The technical note states the aim of compensating “for the tendency to thinness in the bass”: to this listener, however, the cure results in the lower frequencies being rather overstated and boomy at times.
Unfortunately, the Schnéevoigt recording of the Sixth Symphony – one of the most accomplished of Sibelius’s works in the genre, and often overlooked – is not of the same order. The Finnish National Orchestra is not of a comparable quality to the LSO, and the conductor is unable to deliver comparable results.