Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
His Symphony Orchestra
NBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in New York Symphony No. 1 on 11 & 13 July 1950; Symphony No.2 [NBC] on 15, 16 & 23 September 1954
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: October 2005
CD No: CALA CACD0541
Duration: 76 minutes
One of Leopold Stokowski’s last studio recordings – in 1976 – was of Sibelius’s First Symphony, with the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Made for CBS, it is now to be found in IMG Artists’ “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” series, and is a reading of astonishing vitality, volatility and youthful élan, belying the age of the 94-year-old conductor.
This Cala release restores Stokowski’s recording from 1950 – made on 78s for RCA – with his own hand-picked orchestra.
Surprisingly, it is more restrained than its successor, though still a performance of stirring passion, capturing the romantic sweep ofSibelius’s first purely-orchestral essay in symphonic form (the earlier “Kullervo”, Op.7, is sometimes designated ‘symphony’, and Sibelius himself, though withdrawing it after its first performance, considered it as such in his old age.)
Under Stokowski, the first movement of Symphony No.1 has an aptly restless, agitated feel, and though balances are not always totally ideal and natural sounding – woodwind, for instance, can suddenly become very prominent – there is a good senseof cogency, which pays much dividends in a structure (as in the last movement) which can seem episodic.
The initial melancholic strains of the second movement are poignantly conveyed, with some expressive solo playing and well-judged tempos and phrasing. Stokowski certainly whips up a storm in the movement’s latter half, and the return to the opening ruminative mood is affecting. The scherzo’s impetuosity is achieved without feeling over-driven, though plummy timpani, clangy cymbals and less than perfect wind and brass articulation might prove distracting, with the latter suggesting that this music might not have been totally in the players’ bones.
The opening of the finale is taken more steadily than it would be in 1976, and the music is the better for it. Thereafter, the movement is given with all the fervour of a Tchaikovsky tone poem, with contrasting sections distinctly – and dramatically – characterised.
The transfer to CD has been achieved remarkably smoothly. There are one or two places which suggest a 78-‘side break’ or a different edit, but these do not, on the whole, detract from a performance of conviction, integrity and affection.
This 1954 recording of Sibelius’s Second Symphony was Stokowski’s only commercial version. Two live performances from a decade later have been released – one with the Philadelphia Orchestra on the orchestra’s own label, and another, more readily available (on BBC Legends), with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from the 1964 Proms.
Again, this earlier performance finds Stokowski rather less ardent than he would be later on. The BBC performance has a positively Mediterranean feel about it – not necessarily a fault when one remembers Sibelius starting writing the symphony in Italy.
In New York, the first movement’s musical argument is marvellously realised, with each episode defined, yet retaining a sense of on-going organic development. The brass at the climax is magnificent, though earlier I was distracted by a passage which threw the bassoons into odd prominence.
Stokowski observes the ‘Andante’ marking at the start of the second movement – rather than the snail’s pace which some other interpreters have favoured. The brooding atmosphere is most compelling, though after the bassoons’ initial doleful pronouncement, Stokowski deploys muted horns whereas this is not specified in the score. Elsewhere, there is very little of the conductorial tinkering of which Stokowski is sometimes (often unjustly) accused. Brass once more impress – there is a splendidly firm and telling tuba – and Stokowski ensures cohesion throughout, with strings and woodwind (not to mention the solo trumpet) – persuasive in their expressive passages.
Sibelius’s ‘Vivacissimo’ indication for the third movement is taken at face value. The movement is propelled along impetuously, though tension relaxes and time is taken for the contrasting trio section with its plangent oboe phrases. The transition to the finale is handled masterfully, making one regret that Stokowski did not leave behind a recording of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, with its comparably joined first and second movements.
The fourth movement of Sibelius’s Second can easily descend into a kind of bombast – but this is properly avoided here. Stokowski allows us to sense a true symphonic culmination, with any ‘programmatic’ elements eliminated – which is surely what the composer intended.
A letter from Sibelius is reproduced in the booklet in which hedescribed this Stokowski recording of the First Symphony as “wonderful” (though he was apt to use comparable epithets for the majority of those recordings he received) and expresses his happiness at the conductor referring to the composer as his “friend”.
Whilst neither of these readings would probably be a ‘firstchoice’ for collectors, we can nevertheless be grateful to Cala forrestoring them to circulation. I will certainly return to them withpleasure and appreciation.