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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 / En Saga (Beecham) (1935-1939)
In the light of his subsequent stature as one of the world's leading Sibelius interpreters, it is all the more surprising to learn that Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) only came to this music when he was already half-way through his long conducting career. The facts, though, show that, before 1931, only the occasional miniature such as Valse triste figured in his programmes. Between 1931 and 1937, however, he absorbed into his repertoire all seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto and a considerable number of the smaller pieces, recording many of them for the Sibelius Society edition that EMI had begun in 1932.
From 1931 onwards Beecham's enthusiasm for the music never flagged. The symphonies, the concerto, which he recorded with both Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern, the tone poems and orchestral suites all appeared regularly in his concerts; he promoted Sibelius in many European centres, on visits or tours to South Africa and South America, and in every important city in the United States. While in New York in 1942 he recorded the Seventh Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, and when in 1946 he formed his last orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, the Second and Sixth Symphonies were early inclusions in his recording programme. Finally the First and Seventh Symphonies were captured on LP in 1951 and 1955, also with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and a recording of a famously exciting public performance of the Second Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London's Royal Festival Hall in 1954 was published in association with the BBC. The Third and Fifth Symphonies, which Beecham performed only a few times each, were never recorded.
Years after Beecham's death Walter Legge, his principal recording producer in the 1930s, attempted to give the impression that Beecham only took up Sibelius's music because of the opportunity it gave him to record it for the Society Edition, which Legge was then managing, but that absurd claim is contradicted by the fact that the two did not even meet until 1934, by which time Beecham was a firm Sibelius convert and had already given four of the symphonies in the concert hall. At the time, though, Legge was delighted to attract Beecham to the roster of those who had already made records for the Sibelius Society, and while in the event only one of the symphonies, the Fourth, figured among the two hundred or so 78s they made together in the course of that decade, other recordings of Sibelius's music included, besides all the works in this reissue, the Violin Concerto, with Jascha Heifetz, In Memoriam, and movements from the various suites of incidental music to The Tempest, Pelléas et Mélisande and Kuolema.
By the mid-1930s recordings conducted variously by Robert Kajanus, Georg Schnéevoight, Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy meant that all Sibelius's symphonies were nominally available. Four of the seven had been recorded specially for the Sibelius Society, through which EMI sold its discs in albums to subscribers, but there was a pressing need for a new version of the Fourth to complete the canon. There had already been two attempts on the work. It had first been recorded in Philadelphia by Leopold Stokowski in 1932, but with reduced strings, and the resulting discs appeared only in the United States. Then in 1934 a performance by Schnéevoight, on a visit to London, was caught 'live' in Queen's Hall, but did not meet with the composer's approval and was not published.
Beecham first performed the symphony in January 1935. In fact he gave a series of performances, one of which was heard via the radio by Sibelius at his home in Finland. After making a few minor interpretative suggestions aimed at improving still further a performance he described overall as 'Excellent. Perfect', the composer's letter to Walter Legge ended: 'I must now express my deep admiration for Sir Thomas Beecham's masterly conducting. For me it was something unique and remarkable'. It was not until two years later, however, that Beecham's first attempt to capture the symphony on disc was made during three days in October and November 1937. On 23 November Legge sent the resulting test-pressings to Sibelius, who acknowledged them on 28 November and wired two days later: 'Discs by Sir Thomas are excellent'.
Despite this favourable response, Beecham decided to re-record the symphony, which he did ten days later, producing what has always been regarded as a landmark of Sibelius interpretation. Incidentally, that definitive version of 10 December was recorded in the course of one day: the explanation of the improbably large number of 'takes' shown against each side is that all the takes from all the earlier sessions were included in the final totals. In the symphony's finale, according to Legge, a specially made set of miniature bells, more powerful than the orchestral glockenspiel generally used in the work, were employed so as to ensure their audibility on the 78rpm records. Apparently, Sibelius was consulted on this point.
With the exception of the highly introspective tone poem The Bard, written immediately after the Fourth Symphony and inhabiting a similar sound world, the remaining works on this disc date originally from 1894-9, though both En Saga and Festivo were later revised (in the case of Festivo as late as 1911). So was Finlandia, at first entitled 'Finland Awakes', which was intended, along with the first set of Scènes historiques, as incidental music to a patriotic pageant. At the time Sibelius thought Finlandia 'a relatively insignificant piece', though the wider musical world soon adjusted that assessment. En Saga was begun as early as 1892, but the final version dates from ten years later. It is not a programmatic piece: 'In no other work have I exposed myself more completely', Sibelius stated. 'For this reason, all literary interpretations are alien to me.'
Festivo is unusual for Sibelius's rare inclusion in his score of castanets, which are, incidentally, beautifully caught in Beecham's 1935 recording. By that time Sibelius's music was appearing with ever-increasing frequency in his concerts. The last of the Lemminkäinen legends was his latest enthusiasm, and he quickly became attuned to the impact it had on both players and audiences. He took to programming it with orchestras other than his own, such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whose principal viola, Bernard Shore, recalled the exhilarating effect of Beecham's arms 'thrashing like flails' in such exciting music and his amusingly calculated words of warning to the players at rehearsal: "Gentlemen, in this piece you may find it a matter of some difficulty to keep your places. I think you might do well to imagine yourselves disporting in some sort of hair-raising form of locomotion such as … a switchback railway. My advice to you is merely, hold on, and do not let yourselves fall off. I cannot guarantee to help you on again" …
The sources for the transfers on this release were pre-war US Victor "Gold" label pressings, except for Finlandia, which came from a pre-war US Columbia "Full-range" label disc, and Festivo, taken from a similar "microphone label" pressing. The original metal masters of the Fourth Symphony contain numerous flaws that can be heard on all editions.
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SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 / En Saga (Beecham) (1935...