At the time of these recordings of the British “Sibelius Society”, that is in the 1930s, the symphonies of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) were still far from well-known in the romance and germanic countries: that they were well-regarded in Scandinavia was only because they were familiar to the general public. The first country to adopt them was Great Britain, where their real popularity was to begin (it should be stressed that the recordings of the Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus, a close friend of Sibelius, were made in London by London orchestras), extending into some of the major cities of America (notably with Serge Koussevitzky), then with a wider and wider influence.
Curiously the composer had worked simultaneously on his fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies, although they were quite different, and the last two of which would not see the light of day until several years later. Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, composed in 1914/15 and revised between 1916 and 1919, is a work of truly hymn-like inspiration, with a warm, direct lyricism, in which some passages burst in undertones of triumph. After the harshness, tension and asceticism of Symphony No. 4 in A minor, this one recovers the richness of Sibelian orchestration, linked with strong, generous humanity, which makes if the most Beethovenian of his symphonies. For all these reasons, it is certainly this, together with Symphony No. 2, which has gained the most widespread and lasting popularity.
Symphony No. 6 in D minor was completed in 1923, and Sibelius described it as “pure cold water”. It is in any event the most discreet and intimate of his symphonies, and the almost impressionistic refinement of its colour finally shows us to what extent Debussy must have influenced the Finnish composer’s writing. Here he uses the principle – first developed in Symphony No. 2 in D major – which he called “thematic growth”, creating passages which move from being at first rudimentary, and sometimes even disparate, to full melodic lines, whose conjunction will form the general structure of the work, going as far as replacing the development of a theme by a total renewal, without in any way compromising the unity of the performance.
On several occasions Sibelius had announced an eighth symphony which was never revealed. The majority of it seemed to have been written, and revised several times, without ever being to the composer’s satisfaction, and he was widely believed to have destroyed it. In fact he began a mysterious silence which was to become total from 1929 until his death in 1957. However in 1926 he rewrote the symphonic poem Tapiola in which he returned once more to the suggestions from Finnish mythology: Tapio was the supreme deity of the ancient, dark, mysterious forests, and at the outset of this idea Sibelius wrote it as his main work of this genre, an evocation of rare poetic richness, coming from impressionistic, almost Debussyesque, visions to wild outbursts of a fundamental power. To this richness of vision corresponds a complexity of composition which poses considerable demands on the instrumental groups. Some others consider this highly mature work to be the true eighth symphony of the composer.
The Sibelius symphonies still pose ambiguous problems to the interpreter. It is quite certain that basically they continue the great traditions of the romantic symphony and that they are written in the style of this grand heritage. But it is obvious that Sibelius infused the old forms from the past with a new poetical and musical substance, and that he often treated even these forms with a freedom which transformed them and conferred on them a range, poetic extension and qualities of colour which belonged only to him. The nationalistic element, but more so the personal element, which Sibelius brought to the Germanic symphony gave it light, atmosphere and resonance which deeply differentiated the essence of his scores and those for example of Bruckner.
Therein lies the dilemma facing conductors; it often happens that some romance conductors rationalise this music, whereas some German conductors “Germanise” it and approach it in the tradition from which it came. Few interpreters know how to rediscover the unique richness of its form, its primitiveness, its mystery and its poetry.
The energetic and punchy direction of Robert Kajanus restores to us without affectation the fact that Sibelius’ writing is sometimes abrupt and unusual, with occasionally rough contrasts, harsh accents, an unaccustomed mixture of sounds. In short, where many conductors, while glorifying these scores to bring them closer to us, Kajanus does not hesitate to challenge our listening habits and resolutely to disorient us. There probably lies the truth, despite the prestige of many other conductors. When we hear the rich scores under the baton of Robert Kajanus, we fully realise all that they had and retain, irrelevant to the present day, as the post-romantic heritage which it pursued in the language used by the composer is transformed by a vision and a poetic whisper without other examples, and also because the language translates a musical substance whose roots we would search for in vain in one of his predecessors or contemporaries.
All these characteristics of interpretation are found equally in the Finnish conductor, Georg Schnéevoigt, but perhaps at a less noticeable level, in view of the more intimate side of Symphony No. 6 which he interprets in other musical respects extremely subtly and sensitively. Let us point out that here the poco vivace third movement of this symphony is executed rather as molto vivace probably because of the limitations of the 78.
From the technical standpoint of transfers from 78 to CD, we should mention the excellent work of Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio which is worthy of the highest praise: faultless matching of sides and natural sound, a real pleasure to listen to. So we have a recording on CD which once again indicates the essential cultural role of the disc in the preservation of our most precious musical heritage.
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