Leopold Stokowski

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7; Finlandia; Pelléas and Mélisande

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The regrettable thing about the performances on this all-Sibelius disc is not that they are so overdone, it's that they're so ordinary. Recorded live at Helsinki University Festival Hall on June 17, 1953, during the city's Sibelius Festival, the performances here feature Leopold Stokowski leading the Helsinki Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Finnish master's First and Seventh symphonies, plus excerpts from his incidental music for Pelléas and Mélisande. Charismatic conductor Stokowski has brought along his standard bag of orchestral tricks. Textures are sumptuous and colors are luminous. Try the richly evocative "Mélisande" or highly balletic "Entr'acte" from the incidental music. Tempos are pulled and climaxes are pushed. Take as an example the First Symphony's Finale. Marked Quasi una fantasia, Stokowski relentlessly drives the tempo in the development, reins back smoothly in the recapitulation, and then whips them into a gargantuan climax.

Yet, for all the obvious excitement, these are oddly mundane performances. The Helsinki musicians play with manifest dedication, if not always world-class virtuosity, and if they hold to Stokowski's tempos, they don't often seem comfortable with music most of them have known all their lives. By applying his heightened form of romantic conducting to Sibelius' more austere early modernism, Stokowski has diluted the music's strong individuality, thereby reducing its intrinsic value and excitement. In his hands, the music could have been composed by Tchaikovsky, Delius, or Grieg -- hardly what fans of the Finnish master are looking for. Two other things should be mentioned. The performance of Finlandia opening the disc is not by Stokowski but rather by the Helsinki University Choir, and the plumy baritone of the CBS Radio Network's announcer precedes and follows each work.

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