Sibelius / Finlandia and Karelia Suite / Kord – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

More of the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Finlandia and Karelia Suite / Kord

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

A few months back we stumbled upon the London pressing of this relatively rare record — never heard of it before, and who on earth is Kazimierz Kord? — and were shocked to hear how good the random copy of this unknown-to-us recording sounded. The brass was incredibly solid and powerful; I don’t think I had ever heard Finlandia with the kind of heavy brass that this record was able to reproduce. We had to know more! 

We started by pulling out every performance on every label we had in our backroom and playing them one after another. Most never made it to the half-minute mark. Sour or thin brass on the opening salvo of Finlandia? Forget it; on to the trade-in pile you go.

(If you have too many classical records taking up too much space and need to winnow them down to a manageable size, pick a composer and play half a dozen of his works. Most classical records display an irredeemable mediocrity right from the start; it doesn’t take a pair of golden ears to hear it. If you’re after the best sound, it’s the rare record that will have it, which makes clearing shelf space a lot easier than you might imagine. If you keep more than one out of ten you’re probably setting the bar too low if our experience is any guide.)

A few days went by while we were cleaning and listening to the hopefuls. We then proceeded to track down more of the pressings we had liked in our preliminary round of listening. At the end we had a good-sized pile of LPs that we thought shootout-worthy, pressings that included Shaded Dogs, Deccas, Londons, Stereo Treasury’s and Victrolas — representing most of our favorite labels from the Golden Age.

Side Two – Karelia Suite

A++, and one of the few side twos that wasn’t too hard and dry. Although it has some slight dryness, it’s mostly rich and full. It’s not quite as big and present as the best we played, but it’s still big and spacious compared to most of what we played. The brass is big and clear and weighty, just the way it should be, as that is precisely the sound you hear in the concert hall, especially that part about being clear: live music is more than anything else completely clear. We should all strive for that sound in our reproduction of orchestral music.

Side One – Finlandia

A+++ and shockingly good in every way. Listen to how clear the huge tympani thwacks are, surrounded in space, with lovely hall decay. This pressing is hi-rez, baby!

The brass has weight, the top extends for the glorious cymbal crashes, the hall is huge and the staging 3-D — there is practically nothing to fault in the sound on this side one.

Finlandia on Living Stereo

None of the Shaded Dog pressings we’ve played in the last few years had the White Hot Stamper sound of our best Londons and Deccas. The top didn’t open up as much as we would have liked and there tended to be more compression and congestion in the climaxes. If we had ten RCA LPs to play perhaps some better copies would have turned up. At the cost of clean Living Stereo pressings these days, that’s simply not a shootout we can afford to do, given the number of noisy and/or mediocre sounding pressings we would be sure to discover.

Finlandia on Classic Records

Classic Records, as should not be surprising to anyone by now, completely ruined the album. Their version is dramatically more smeared and low-rez than our Hot Stamper Shaded Dogs, with almost none of the sweetness, richness and ambience that the best RCA pressings have in such abundance.

In fact their pressing is just plain awful, like most of the classical recordings they remastered, and should be avoided at any price.

If you’re tempted to pick one up for a few bucks to hear how badly mastered their version is, go for it. If you actually want a record to play for enjoyment, don’t bother — it’s a complete waste of money.

Most audiophiles (including audiophile record reviewers) have never heard a classical recording of the quality of a good original pressing. If they had Classic Records would have gone out of business immediately after producing their first three Living Stereo titles, all of which were dreadful and characterized as such by us way back in 1994.

I’m not sure why the rest of the audiophile community was so easily fooled (to this very day! There are dozens on the TAS List for Pete’s sake), but I can say that we weren’t, at least when it came to their classical releases. (We do admit to having made plenty of mistaken judgments about their jazz and rock records, and we have the We Was Wrong entries on the site to prove it.)

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Tone Poem – Finlandia
The Swan of Tuonela (from Four Legends)

Side Two

Karelia Suite (First Three Movements)
Valse Triste (from the Incidental Music for Kuolema)

Finlandia – Description by Brian Wise

Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia became the composer’s most enduring work in part because of the political climate in Finland at the time of its creation. Russia imposed a strict censorship policy on the small nation in 1899. In October of that year, Sibelius composed a melodrama to Finnish writer Zachria Topelius’ poem The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River, which is marked by a particularly patriotic fervor; “I was born free and free will I die” is typical of its sentiments, and one of which Sibelius took particular note. The following month saw a fund-raising gala organized by the Finnish press. While its ostensible purpose was to raise money for newspaper pension funds, it was in fact a front for rallying support for a free press at a time when the czarist hold on the country was tightening.

Sibelius extracted six tableaux from his melodrama for a performance intended to provide a celebratory end to the gathering on November 4. Innocuously titled Music for Press Ceremony, the score concluded with “Finland Awakens,” which Sibelius reworked into an independent symphonic poem in the following year. Following the suggestion of his artistic confidant Axel Carpelan, he retitled this rousing patriotic essay Finlandia; since that time, the work has virtually become Finland’s second national anthem. Because of censorship restrictions, the work was most often performed under the not-altogether-apt title Impromptu until Finland gained independence following World War I.

The work opens with a questioning, vaguely ominous brass progression that evokes the “powers of darkness” from Topelius’ text, setting off a colorful drama that is at turns reflective, jubilant, and militant. Most famous, though, is a hymn-like theme which makes its first appearance in an atmosphere of quiet reverence; by the end of the work, it has become a powerful statement of triumph. Indeed, Finlandia is a clear precursor to the composer’s symphonies, in which the orchestra so often assumes the role of an ever-strengthening, defiant juggernaut.

Karelia – Description by Keith Anderson

The Karelia Suite, among the most popular of the compositions of Sibelius, was derived from music written in 1893 to accompany a series of patriotic tableaux dealing with the history of the Karelia region from the year 1293 to 1811. The first of the three pieces included in the Karelia Suite, Intermezzo, was written to accompany the second tableau, in which Karelian hunters bring their tribute to the Lithuanian prince. The second movement, Ballade, accompanied the fourth tableau, in which Karl Knutsson, fifteenth-century King of Sweden and Finland and twice deposed, takes refuge at Viipuri Castle and listens to a ballad, the original singer replaced in the suite by a cor anglais. The third movement, Alla marcia, accompanied the scene of a battle at Käkisalmi (Kexholm) Castle in the sixteenth century, besieged by the French mercenary Pontus de la Gardie.

Artist Biography by Robert Cummings

Finland’s Jean Sibelius is perhaps the most important composer associated with nationalism in music and one of the most influential in the development of the symphony and symphonic poem. Sibelius was born in southern Finland, the second of three children. His physician father left the family bankrupt, owing to his financial extravagance, a trait that, along with heavy drinking, he would pass on to Jean. Jean showed talent on the violin and at age nine composed his first work for it, Rain Drops. In 1885 Sibelius entered the University of Helsinki to study law, but after only a year found himself drawn back to music. He took up composition studies with Martin Wegelius and violin with Mitrofan Wasiliev, then Hermann Csillag. During this time he also became a close friend of Busoni. Though Sibelius auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he would come to realize he was not suited to a career as a violinist.

In 1889 Sibelius traveled to Berlin to study counterpoint with Albert Becker, where he also was exposed to new music, particularly that of Richard Strauss. In Vienna he studied with Karl Goldmark and then Robert Fuchs, the latter said to be his most effective teacher. Now Sibelius began pondering the composition of the Kullervo Symphony, based on the Kalevala legends. Sibelius returned to Finland, taught music, and in June 1892, married Aino Järnefelt, daughter of General Alexander Järnefelt, head of one of the most influential families in Finland. The premiere of Kullervo in April 1893 created a veritable sensation, Sibelius thereafter being looked upon as the foremost Finnish composer. The Lemminkäinen suite, begun in 1895 and premiered on April 13, 1896, has come to be regarded as the most important music by Sibelius up to that time.

In 1897 the Finnish Senate voted to pay Sibelius a short-term pension, which some years later became a lifetime conferral. The honor was in lieu of his loss of an important professorship in composition at the music school, the position going to Robert Kajanus. The year 1899 saw the premiere of Sibelius’ First Symphony, which was a tremendous success, to be sure, but not quite of the magnitude of that of Finlandia (1899; rev. 1900).

In the next decade Sibelius would become an international figure in the concert world. Kajanus introduced several of the composer’s works abroad; Sibelius himself was invited to Heidelberg and Berlin to conduct his music. In March 1901, the Second Symphony was received as a statement of independence for Finland, although Sibelius always discouraged attaching programmatic ideas to his music. His only concerto, for violin, came in 1903. The next year Sibelius built a villa outside of Helsinki, named “Ainola” after his wife, where he would live for his remaining 53 years. After a 1908 operation to remove a throat tumor, Sibelius was implored to abstain from alcohol and tobacco, a sanction he followed until 1915. It is generally believed that the darkening of mood in his music during these years owes something to the health crisis.

Sibelius made frequent trips to England, having visited first in 1905 at the urging of Granville Bantock. In 1914 he traveled to Norfolk, CT, where he conducted his newest work The Oceanides. Sibelius spent the war years in Finland working on his Fifth Symphony. Sibelius traveled to England for the last time in 1921. Three years later he completed his Seventh Symphony, and his last work was the incidental music for The Tempest (1925). For his last 30 years Sibelius lived a mostly quiet life, working only on revisions and being generally regarded as the greatest living composer of symphonies. In 1955 his 90th birthday was widely celebrated throughout the world with many performances of his music. Sibelius died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1957.