Four LPs have become three CDs that restore to the catalogue all of Horst Stein’s impressive survey for Decca of a selection from Sibelius’s canon. Stein (1928-2008, he died aged eighty), a musician’s musician and a connoisseur’s conductor, is mostly recalled for championing his native Austro-German symphonic and operatic repertoire, at least in terms of recording, including Bruckner, Wagner and Weber with the Vienna Philharmonic, Brahms in Bamberg, and furthering the cause of Max Reger’s music.
Stein held positions with orchestras in Bamberg, Basel and Tokyo (NHK Symphony) and in the world of opera he is most associated with the Mannheim National Theatre, the Hamburg State and Vienna State houses and he was a regular guest at Bayreuth. Another appointment was to the Suisse Romande Orchestra, between 1980 and 1985, succeeding Wolfgang Sawallisch and Paul Kletzki, the latter having followed the ensemble’s founder and decades-serving conductor Ernest Ansermet. Jonathan Nott is the SRO’s conductor designate, his tenure beginning in January 2017.
If Stein is not immediately considered as being associated with Sibelius’s music, despite these notable recordings having been around for many years (only the Symphony is new internationally to CD), then this set could be a revelation.
Finlandia opens with snarling brass, dramatic timpani and lamenting woodwinds and strings, before an energised and incisive Allegro and a stirring apotheosis. Stein’s conducting is also to the point in Night Right and Sunrise, a wonderful piece of musical depiction, exact to the title, colourfully and ingeniously scored and, come the close, glowing.
Pohjola’s Daughter also benefits from attention to detail and dramatic tension, and is often thrilling, while En saga is urgent, atmospheric and impassioned, (unstated) legend and musical clarity entwined, the rapt central episode is notably sensitive, and the clarinet solo that closes the work is very expressive; in between, the brass section really whoops things up! Stein brings his theatrical experience to bear in this score.
The large canvas that is the Lemminkäinen Legends, when considered as a whole, also finds Stein underlining narrative and impression. Although here the movements follow what seems to have eventually been Sibelius’s favoured order, I will admit to programming ‘Lemminkäinen and the maidens of Saari’ and Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ as the first two Legends, which seems to me preferable, the longest pair followed by the shortest. Stein’s conducting makes for compelling listening, capturing the pieces’ breadth, vividness, excitement and eloquence, the music painting pictures and also beautifully structured, as windswept and as intimate as you like. ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ is a haunted seascape (with a poetic cor anglais solo), dark and foreboding, and ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’ an exhilarating ride.
Two sets of Incidental Music are included. Whether for Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande or for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Sibelius’s mastery of investing so much into vignettes is made abundantly clear. The Pelléas Suite includes ‘At the Castle Gate’, the signature-tune for the long-running BBC Television programme The Sky at Night, presented for decades by the late Patrick Moore. Stein leads an imposing account of this number and, elsewhere, is receptive to Sibelius’s delicate, evocative and moving portrayals, the closing ‘Death of Mélisande’ particularly poignant. For the Shakespeare score, Stein really lets rip in the ‘Prelude’, one of the most-elemental of musical storms that leaves behind it an inhospitable terrain and he is then alive to the deft descriptions that follow, Sibelius’s skills for portraiture, in one of his ultimate opuses, undimmed; this is music that compels and fires the imagination. What a shame that Stein did not also record Suite No.2 (similarly that Charles Groves’s Liverpool taping for EMI of both has not, as far as I know, made it to CD beyond Japan).
Finally, the Second Symphony, which I am so pleased to have finally caught. This was an LP, an April 1984 release, the cover (as you can see) inscribed with “Digital Recording”, but try as I did to order SXDL7565 in the Chancery Lane branch of Templar’s, a regular (daily!) haunt when I had a proper job in London, such requests came back as a mixture of “not known”, “not available” and even “deleted”.
Well, thirty-two years on, here is that errant Stein version; and it’s magnificent. Throughout, his pacing is persuasive and his ear for detailing and articulation devoted. In short, a very satisfying account that stands high in a long list of versions of one of Sibelius’s most-popular scores, a performance of power, passion and lyrical flexibility, brimful of character and commitment.
Throughout, the recorded sound is excellent, mostly analogue with the digits saved for the Symphony, all made in the acoustically splendid Victoria Hall, the scene of so many superb Ansermet issues that continue to delight today (including Sibelius 2, 4 and Tapiola). And Horst Stein’s conducting of Sibelius will also maintain its capacity to be revelled in.