Sibelius Symphonies & Tone Poems – Anthony Collins

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Sibelius
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49
Nightride and Sunrise, Op.55
Pelléas et Mélisande, Op.46 – Suite [selection]
Karelia – Overture, Op.10
Karelia – Suite, Op.11

London Symphony Orchestra
Anthony Collins [all except Karelia – Suite]

Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Jensen

Recorded between 1952 and 1956: Collins in Kingsway Hall, London, Jensen in Copenhagen


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9490 [2 CDs – Symphonies 1-4]
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9493 (2 CDs – Symphonies 5-7 & remainder of pieces]
Duration: 2 hours 12 minutes [Symphonies 1-4]
2 hours 21 minutes [Symphonies 5-7 & remainder of pieces]

Composer, violist, violinist and conductor Anthony Collins (1893-1963) had a distinguished career in both America and the UK. His Sibelius set is remembered as a major achievement but he also had a great composing talent. He studied composition with Holst and wrote symphonies, violin concertos, operas, chamber music, songs, film scores and much excellent and tuneful light music that retains its popularity. His Decca recordings of the 1950s were admired as the latest in Hi-Fi and their superb quality is still evident in these fine transfers. Not only was the frequency range amazing for its day and the quality bright and sparkling, but the balancing was also immaculate.

This Decca Eloquence re-issue presents dramatic Sibelius in sonic terms although the interpretative approach is ‘classical’ in its directness. Collins revels in the forceful passages in Symphonies 1, 2, 3 and 5. The way in which the Allegro energico of the first movement of No.1 flares into life is gripping (of the many other recordings I have heard, only Lorin Maazel in his also-Decca version achieves the fury of Collins). The timpani solos in the scherzo have rarely sounded so forceful (or indeed so accurate).

Talking of timpani, the coda of No. 2 is thrilling, not least because Collins uses the version in which the drums re-iterate the ending of each orchestral phrase. Koussevitzky, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Mackerras and others also use this part in their recordings. This drum part is not in the standard Breitkopf score and experts believe it to have been created by Koussevitzky with the approval of Sibelius who unsuccessfully requested the publishers to incorporate it in the score although no documentary evidence has been found to this effect. Nevertheless, this version is extraordinarily dramatic and once heard, the published version, with its comfortable and predictable drum rolls seems amazingly dull. Collins’s fiery reading of No.2 is close in musical philosophy to the spectacularly exciting version recorded a few years later by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt – I continue to enjoy both: very few later performances can match either of them.

Symphony 3 is driven fiercely. The overwhelming intensity of the first climax (which reaches its peak just over a minute into the first movement) gives a clear indication of how the music is to be interpreted. At the time the reading of the slow movement was thought to be controversial – in particular the distinguished Sibelius commentator Robert Layton was critical of Collins’s approach and has, with thoroughness, reasoned in print why this movement should be taken at a much more moderate pace. One particular well-chosen phrase summed up this view when Layton said that the movement “… runs a good deal deeper than one would imagine on hearing the average concert or broadcast performance”. I must add that I find Collins’s fast-flowing performance perfectly acceptable but I believe that I am in the minority.

Symphony 5 is afforded the same trenchant approach. It may seem the naïve reaction of a young music-lover but after hearing Karajan conduct the work in the concert hall I recall returning to Collins’s mono LP and thinking that the internal balance was superior. On rehearing Collins today, and even with the added evidence of excellent later recordings by Karajan for comparison, I find that I have not changed my mind. Collins also makes sense of the extraordinary irregularity of the spaces between the last chords of the finale in a way that escapes many conductors.

rallentando that spoils many a performance.

No.6 I find cool and less comforting than in some interpretations – notably Paavo Berglund’s magnificent interpretation, but I certainly appreciate Collins’s once-maligned but nowadays more readily accepted reading of No.7. True he plays plainly through the scherzo-like section where Beecham for example sees greater mystery and the famous pre-war Koussevitzky version convinces the listener that this is a great symphony from beginning to end but Collins still provides subtleties, especially at the amazing moments of gentle key-change.

The fiery and dramatic element of Collins’s conducting is again in evidence in the tone poems. Pohjola’s Daughter has a violent full-orchestral passage some ten minutes in and the clarity of the 1954 mono recording is exemplary. The neglected Nightride and Sunrise is particularly bold and insistent – the more I hear the work, the more I am surprised that it was composed as early as it was since its harmonies and many of its phrases foreshadow the Seventh Symphony of two decades later. Years ago, the only alternative LP of Nightride and Sunrise was by Eugen Jochum and neither performance of it seems to have been surpassed.

The Karelia Suite – placed sensibly after Collins’s Karelia Overture – is presented in Thomas Jensen’s magnificent old recording. I have admired this since I first heard it on a 45-rpm EP. The central ‘Ballade’ is phrased with great expression and the detail of the finale – especially in respect of the subtle percussion – challenges the clarity of many a stereo recording.

These albums display the very best of digital refurbishment. It is important however to consider the recent rival version by Beulah (14PD8), which also takes 4 CDs but does not include the Karelia Suite. The difference is subtle but consistent. We cannot know what refinements the re-mastering engineers chose to use nor can we know how many generations of tape away from the master (if any) have intervened. After careful listening, the Eloquence set seems to have a touch more treble as evidenced in particular by the violin quality. It has more tape hiss yet this is so slight as to be of no concern and it does also seem to reveal a touch more evidence of the ubiquitous Kingsway Hall London Underground trains. The extra brightness and the addition of the Karelia Suite are items that influence me towards Eloquence but Beulah has done a fine job. The differences are very small and price might be the biggest influence on buyers’ judgements.

Until reading Raymond Tuttle’s booklet notes, I had not realised that Collins was in consultation with the composer, but given the feeling of Sibelian power that this set provides, I am sure that this influence helped Collins greatly.

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