Barbirolli conducts Sibelius’s First (1966)

This is a short review from about 1999 that I’m republishing as I revive and freshen up my original Inktroduction to Sibelius’s First Symphony. Originally available as a single CD with the Third Symphony, released under EMI’s Classics for Pleasure budget line in 1996, the recording is now available as part of a “Sibelius Edition” of all the stereo recordings Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) made for EMI with the Hallé Orchestra. All good men and women, these. Details of the recordings at the bottom. Let’s do the review first: Continue reading Barbirolli conducts Sibelius’s First (1966)

Kullervo – 1972 and 1985 Recordings by Berglund

Kullervo, op.7
recorded in 1985.
EEVA-LILSA SAARINEN mezzo-soprano
JORMA HYNNINEN baritone
State Academic Male Choir of the Estonian S.S.R. · Helsinki University Male Choir · Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND

EMI Matrix CDM5 65080-2
[71:46] mid-price. Libretto included.


Kullervo, op.7
WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING (1970)

RAILI KOSTIA soprano
USKO VIITANEN baritone
Helsinki University Male Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND
Also includes: The Oceanides, Karelia Suite, Scènes historiques – Suite No.1, Tapiola, Finlandia, Serenades Nos.1 & 2.

EMI Forte CZS5 74200-2
[147:55] budget-price. Libretto NOT included.

At long last, EMI has reissued the legendary world-premiere recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony, made in 1970 by Sibelius scholar and conductor Paavo Berglund. Though the music was composed and first performed in 1892, over one hundred years ago, Sibelius withdrew it from the world, and only allowed the third movement to be performed in celebration of the centenary of the publication of the Kalevala in 1935, when the composer himself was 60 years of age.

Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund
Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund

Since then, Sibelius’ choral symphony was not performed in its entirety until 1958, the year after his death. It was only finally recorded for the first time ever in November 1970. Paavo Berglund (left) recorded it again in June 1985 with EMI Records, in a much-acclaimed performance. But it is this 1970 world-premiere which many Sibelius fans have been waiting for.

Now, in what seems to be a double-dose of celebration for these fans, EMI has not only released John Barbirolli’s beautiful cycle of the symphonies, but also this – I must confess at having scoffed and cursed at EMI’s many strange policies regarding the circulation of their recordings. For now, I must issue my heartfelt thanks.

So how does this “new”, older, Kullervo compare to the 1985 recording? As with Berglund’s Bournemouth cycle of the symphonies , it is at least revelatory, to say the least. The performance sounds matured and well-prepared – which is a major point considering that this is the world-premiere recording of a rarely-encountered piece of music at that time. On first impression, it is also clear that the 1985 recording is much better, with finer details and crisper colours; the strings are richer, the brass mellower, the rhythms and figures sharper.

In terms of interpretation, both versions exhibit very fine stature, with the later one sounding more sure of itself, not surprisingly – as if it has grown up. This is not to say that the earlier recording is unsure, but rather it has a greater impression of exploration – which is exactly what the classical recording world was doing then with Kullervo.

And what an impression it must have received – 78 years after its debut performance, Berglund’s reading does more than ample justice to this majestic score. The impact of the unraveling introduction, the tragic-heroic brass outcries, the pathos of the singers, the chanting chorus – surely, it is not hard to imagine the impact which Sibelius wrought on the Finnish world of music during his time.

The heart of the work, Kullervo and his Sister, receives fine performances on both recordings. The choral entry on both are fascinating. The later 1985 version has more kick, more energetic drive, sharper-toned strings, even more heroic atmosphere. But listening to the 1970 version, I find it refreshing in its certain youthfulness, its smooth delivery backed – on both recordings – by the foot-tapping pulse of the bass line. At the same time, the relatively inferior 1970 recording only brings into sharp contrast the details of the 1985 version. In any case, what satisfies me about Berglund’s way with the work is how he brings so much underlying energy to the music, despite its fairly moderate pace and the simplicity of the devices Sibelius used to constuct the music. If like me, you should grow to like this music, I assure you, you will be memorising the first six lines of the chorus in no time – such is the heroic momentum of the Helsinki University Male Choir (and company).

The baritone employed in 1985, Jorma Hynninen, is a highly experienced Kullervo. With a much darker voice, his rendition is somewhat more “Wagnerian” in style, certainly more dramatic and dynamic. However, Usko Viitanen’s contribution to the world-premiere is quite excellent, sung with much emotional power and sincerity. His is a more noble Kullervo, perhaps, more meditative. His anguish at the realisation of his incestuous deed has a tragic dignity; but in Hyninnen, the sense of horror mixed with guilt is stronger, the emotions of the story more visceral.

The soprano part of Kullervo isn’t exactly a particularly “visual” experience, consisting quite a bit of “wandering”. It’s emotional message is either underplayed or subtle, depending on your perspective. The main chunk, in which the sister reveals that her father is the same as Kullervo’s, simultaneously describes both her contented youth and her admission of guilt – The part is rather hard to pull off satisfactorily if only because Sibelius’ musical-emotional dynamics here are rather subtle.

Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901)

Of the sopranos on record, Raili Kostia gives an adequate reading in 1970. But Eeva-Lilsa Saarinen’s interpretation in 1985 is more multi-dimensional, depicting the scenes more distinctly. In the passage where Kullervo’s sister defiantly rejects him in fast, semi-stuttering fashion (“Päästa pois minua tästä”), Saarinen’s jittery reading is more natural than Kostia’s rather more rigid, almost straight-staccato rendition.

One interesting difference is in the final chords – the earlier version is actually much more angry and defiant of tone, which I find much more appropriate to Berglund’s smoother, less-sharp 1985 interpretation. In any case, both orchestras in both records are absolutely splendid. However, in terms of vocal soloists, the 1985 version is superior.

Berglund’s 1970 rendition of the fourth movement, Kullervo goes to War, is absolutely spectacular stuff – the volatile energy and pure living imagery the Bournemouth musicians conjure is a splendour to behold – watch out for the brass, how they fanfare at each other with pinpoint staccato and confidence; or the collective chirps of the woodwinds, the fluttering winds – this so much makes me want to ask Sibelius what he was picturing in his mind when he wrote this. This is an all-out amazing journey all Sibelians must hear, right up to the shattering trumpet blasts of the heroic conclusion (don’t miss that!). The best Kullervo goes to War I’ve ever heard.

By contrast the later version of this movement is taken slower – 10’01” versus 8’52”. The pace is thus slower, and the old recording even matches the newer one in sound quality. Without a doubt, in this case, the earlier 1970 performance wins hands down.

Kullerov, Kalervo’s offspring,
Grasped the sharpened sword he carried,
Looked upon the sword and turned it.
And he questioned it and asked it,
And he asked the sword’s opinion,
If it was willing to slay him. …

“Wherefore at my heart’s desire
Should I not thy flesh devour,
And drink up thy blood so evil?
I who guiltless flesh have eaten,
Drank the blood of those who sinned not?”

The Kalevala
excerpts from Cantos 35 & 36

The finale, Kullervo’s Death, is spectacularly well-performed in both recordings. The 1970 version, however, has more emotional depth – I find myself sympathising with it more even as in the past I have sympathised most with Berglund’s 1985 version. It seems as if, as we follow the two recordings towards the end of the music, Berglund’s 1970 performance shows more and more of its true mettle.

In the final analysis – the 1985 version is a better recording, has better soloists; but the 1970 version has stronger conclusions; in both cases, orchestral support is beyond reproach – these are two fantastic orchestras at work here, and Berglund deserves to have both recordings lauded.

Symphonies 2 & 5 – Karajan Edition (1960, EMI)

Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
Symphony No.5 in E-flat major, op.82

The Philharmonia Orchestra
conducted by Herbert von Karajan

EMI Classics Karajan Edition CDM5 66599-2
[77:04] mid-price
Symphony No.2 recorded March 1960. No.5 recorded Sept 1960.

An original Flying Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

* * * * *

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) has always been rather special to me. You see, unfortunately (for me), he died the very year I discovered many of his greatest recordings, which contained music which has influenced me to this day. Since his death, the usual reactions occured and many collectors and critics alike came out to bash him. This posthumous bashing is pathetic and typical of the narrow-minded who can only appreciate art by listening to cynics and not the music itself. Every conductor has his good and bad recordings, bar none. For Karajan, when they were good, they were REALLY good.

Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan

Since the first batch of CDs from EMI’s Karajan Edition came out, I have been waiting for the Philharmonia recordings of the Sibelius symphonies – some of these, especially the Fourth, Seventh and Tapiola, are the stuff of legends, with the personal approval of the composer.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is a Karajan specialty, having recorded it four times. The 1965 recording for DG (Galleria 439 982-2) remains the best. This version opens well, and is just as fine until the flute spoils the picture with a strained note or two. The performance is slightly wanting in concentration for the first third of the movement, though the orchestra plays with marvelous skill throughout the symphony. The first big climax near the beginning does not quite have the swell and burst of light which distinguishes the Berlin 1965 recording. Nevertheless, the point where the two original movements were joined (around 8’46”) is beautifully executed by Karajan. In the monumental conclusion, the Philharmonia rises to the occasion with a glorious blaze of brass. The precision of their playing, along with the pulsating horns in the background, provide an exciting ending.

In this performance of the gentle Andante, the subtle ‘dancing’ pulse seems to be emphasised. I can almost feel a little waltz, a whiff of the anxiety of the Valse triste. In the finale, the Philharmonia horns ring out like bells in the “Swan Hymn”, an alternative to the softer “hymn” tone. When more than a little brash, the former approach is a little ugly and clumsy. But here it is carefully done – the horns are brought to the fore without drowning the strings or the majestic winds in the background. The great C major climax is certainly not the best I’ve heard – Karajan’s DG recording “blossoms” with greater excitement.

Karajan moulds the misterioso section with great atmosphere, misty and then chilly. Towards the end, the trumpets’ climax is earthshaking (in fact, it’s very loud – watch the volume!). Six orchestral chords end the Symphony – there are a huge number of ways to deliver this unique conclusion: Karajan takes them straight, determined rather than anticipating, with a purposefulness which reads differently from other versions. In fact, come to think of it, there is a sense of purposeful moulding which marks this version more than the Berlin 1965 recording – this is both a pro and a con. It makes the music move more efficiently, but at the same time reduces the naturalness with which it flows – works in some passages, but not others.

Karajan’s Philharmonia recording of Sibelius’ Second Symphony appears for the first time on CD here. With its majestic finale, one would think it’s completely suited to the lush “Karajan sound” – believe me it is. The first movement is an Allegretto landscape by turns calm and stormy. The moody second movement, a brooding D minor exploration of darkness. Karajan and the Philharmonia show excellent sense of pacing and contrast, responding with ample understanding of the music’s dramatic shifts of tension. The gleaming brass and huge explosions of timpani glower in tragic heroism. The strings are skilfully articulate and richly sonorous, strongly characterising the Allegretto as well as the F-sharp major theme of hope in the Andante sostenuto of the second movement, with one of the most beautifully sculpted endings I have ever heard. With pungent double-reeds, sharply trilling flutes, grand outpouring emotions and a heartwrenching brass cry, crescendo, the orchestra truly impresses.

The vivacissimo scherzo is tautly rendered with great discipline, purposefully driven without rushing. In the pastoral trio, the oboe solo sounds nasal (or “pungent”?), neither annoying nor sweet. Thankfully, this does not seem to spoil the performance. Both these sections are repeated, but in a symphonic masterstroke, Sibelius develops the second trio seamlessly into a great churning of swirling winds and long-breathed brass chords, while the strings, sweeping in anticipation the three-note ascending motif that has been resident in the symphony, drive the music into its famous finale.

Here, the earlier symphonic material joins in a majestic melody that would have sent many a Romantic composer packing home. This great outpouring of D major, with its grand string theme, is 100% Karajan’s cup of tea. In addition to richness of sound and expansiveness of expression, the trick to making this movement sound good has always been pacing. Some conductors go too fast and sound hurried (Rattle/EMI); others fast tempo but pace and control well (Berglund/EMI). Others good pace, but lethargic, no frisson at all (Davis/RCA, Davis/Philips). Some are sustained purely by this energy and tension, whatever their tempo (Kamu/DG, Maazel/Decca, especially Bernstein/Sony). In his 1980 recording (also for EMI but with the BPO), Karajan went very slow but it produced a reading of great cosmic energy. In this Philharmonia recording, the sonic limitations aside, he belongs to the few renditions (Jansons/EMI, Segerstam/Chandos) where everything is impressively held together, energized and beautifully paced.

Restlessly propelling the music, the Philharmonia perform with enormous conviction, pouring out tremendous gales of energy all the way to its heroically defiant final coda. Many, many performances fail at this point, because this triumphant conclusion is completely and unashamedly affirmative to the point of being “vulgar” – the word used by critic Virgil Thomson. In bad renditions, I cannot help but agree – it gets very sentimentalised and overblown. I am happy to say, however, that Karajan gets everything right here – the coda is splendidly constructed, the trumpets playing with the orchestra rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. This performance ranks among the very best versions that I now own. (Yes, I’m a nutcase: I have 16 versions. But then you should trust me even more…)