Classical Reissue Reviews

SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 1 in E Minor; Pohjola’s Daughter; Tapiola – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ London Sym. Orch./ Robert Kajanus – Naxos Historical

Kajanus set the gold standard for Sibelius symphony interpretation, and these restorations show us how.

Published on November 22, 2012

SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 1 in E Minor; Pohjola’s Daughter; Tapiola – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ London Sym. Orch./ Robert Kajanus – Naxos Historical

SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op .39; Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49; Tapiola, Op. 112 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Op. 39)/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Robert Kajanus – Naxos Historical 8.111393, 66:13 [Not distr. in the U.S.] ****:

“There are none who have gone deeper and given [my symphonies] more feeling and beauty than Robert Kajanus.” Jean Sibelius had recommended Robert Kajanus (1856-1933) personally for the 1930 recording project underwritten by the Finnish government to popularize Sibelius’ music via British musical organizations. In the first of three projected installments of the Kajanus legacy, producer and engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has masterfully restored the visceral performances by the old RPO and LSO that set the standard for recorded Sibelius interpretation.

Whatever the sonic limitations of the Kajanus E Minor Symphony (21-23 May 1930), the clarity of orchestral detail and studied rendering of the various themes – in their pageant, their depiction of an epic landscape – prove taut and dramatic. Kajanus himself had led the revised version of the score in 1900. For a first recording, the spontaneity and electric excitement of the occasion remain quite palpable. Some of the music’s dynamic extremes are lost to the early electrical recording process, but the mercurial and shifting sensibilities have their fair share of a wonderful alchemy. The music at its heroic best rivals the Tchaikovsky ethos. Tympani, clarinet, and harp often dominate the first movement, with strings in blazing or percussive motion in attendance. The Andante extends Kajanus’ iron grip on tempo and dynamics, but he does permit a pantheistic lyricism into the music that adds a mystical flavor. We can hear elements of Wagner’s Forest Murmurs in modal guise. A grand sweep permeates this noble rendition. Strumming strings and colossal tympani mark the Scherzo, whose woodwinds, too, engage in hearty bits of colloquy that soon explode into a dervish dance. Flute, horns, and tympani well define the bucolic trio section. Largesse defines the Kajanus realization of the Finale (Quasi una fantasia) which culminates in the big theme that allows the RPO to strut its virtuosity. The correspondences to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony have been prominent enough for us to recall that Sibelius heard that work in Helsinki and commented, “There is much of myself in that man.”

Kajanus recorded the 1906 symphonic poem Pohjola’s Daughter 29-30, June 1932. A legend of desire and a failed quest, the music has a fervor that combines mystery, languor, and adventurous excitement. Kajanus raises the intensity of the piece via the LSO winds and strings quite suddenly without sacrificing majesterial grandeur for histrionics. To connoisseurs of this music’s recorded performances, it becomes obvious that Koussevitzky took his own cues to this score from Kajanus. Wonderful transparency marks this performance, and the transfer from shellacs sounds virtually seamless. The brass exclamations mid-way through the score, followed by deep bass grumbles and obsessive upper strings, bring home the “Northern,” pagan element in this often wild music.

The 1926 Tapiola, named for a Northern forest god, was commissioned by Walter Damrosch. Sir Thomas Beecham favored this work; but I heard my first “revelatory” performance by a Koussevitzly acolyte, Eleazar de Carvalho, in Syracuse. In one long movement, this “truncated symphony” or “extended tone-poem” may be Sibelius’ answer to Debussy’s Jeux. Kajanus definitely breathes a volatile, active life into its pulsating and shifting metrics. The deliberately slow process of musical evolution parallels the opening of the composer’s Fifth Symphony. The opening motif hides itself in various guises high and low, often by octave displacement. The wind-blown effects adumbrate passages in Vaughan Williams’ Antarctica Symphony. Yet, within the shifting matrix of mercurial colors, Kajanus imposes an ineluctable sense of form that culminates in blazing high strings suggestive of both anguish and menace. A propitious first album of the Kajanus Sibelius inscriptions, Mr. Obert-Thorn!

—Gary Lemco




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