Sibelius’s Lemminkainen Suite – Great Recordings of My Youth

When I was first exploring classical music as a youngster, my universe was circumscribed by the pieces assigned by my piano teacher and the small collection of 78 rpm and monaural LP albums owned by my father.  Prime in this small universe was an LP by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra of the tone poems "Four Tales of the Kalevala" by Jean Sibelius, titled on the album cover "Lemminkainen Suite" because the four tales had to do with the legendary wanderings of the mythological Lemminkainen.  The most famous of the movements, "The Swan of Tuonela," was also the one most likely to show up on orchestra concert programs in those days, although the exciting "Lemminkainen's Homeward Journey" was also a favorite of Toscanini and Stokowski.  But Ormandy was among the earliest to record the entire suite, which includes two longer movements: "Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari" and "Lemminkainen in Tuonela."

I dearly loved this recording and played it over and over in the early days, sometimes impatient to get through the sprawling opening movements on each side of the LP (each running over 14 minutes) to get to the shorter, more popular ones.  The Swan in that performance glided regally above the dark waters in about nine and a half minutes, the Lemminkainen was journeying home at quite a sprint of 5:33. 

That old LP did not survive in the catalogue when stereo came in, and by the time I was off on my own and putting together my own record collection, it was quite impossible to buy a copy.  (As a youngster, I was pretty oblivious to the used LP market, and rarities would have been beyond the few dollars I was prepared to spend for a new LP back in the 1960s, as I save up my weekly allowance to buy the occasional record.  By the time I could afford the rarities, it was unobtainable.)

Eventually, Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the suite again in stereo, for Angel (now EMI), very late in the conductor's career, as the Angel contract covered some of his final recordings.  I bought that LP and enjoyed it, but something was missing.  The music was beautiful but did not seem quite as thrilling, and the Swan seemed a bit matter of fact.  That recording was reissued on CD relatively early in the new technology, and has remained in print in one form or another ever since, generally esteemed as among the best available recordings of a piece rarely played in full in US concert halls.

But now, Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio has issued the old recording (1950/51) on CD, coupled with an even older magnificent Ormandy/Philadelphia production, the 1947 recording of Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1.  Nobody plays these things in regular subscription concerts any more, and Ormandy and the Philadelphia were unrivalled.  Comparing the Ormandy recordings, I can see where my impressions came from – the old Lemminkainen is faster in movements one and three (drastically so in one), much slower for the Swan, and about the same for the finale.  I don't think Rose had access to master tapes or even particularly mint LPs for the Sibelius, since surface noise is evident, but the sound is good and the splendor is there.  His source for the Grieg seems better; despite the earlier recording date, it actually sounds a bit richer to me.

In any event, thank-you Andrew Rose for restoring to me one of the treasures of my youth.  Anybody looking for a thrilling rendition of Lemminkainen need look no further, although I think the stereo remake nicely complements it.  (There are plenty of other good Lemminkainen recordings, but when will we ever hear this in concert again???)

2 thoughts on “Sibelius’s Lemminkainen Suite – Great Recordings of My Youth

  1. It would be great to hear the Lemminkainen suite in concert – in fact I’d settle for a single movement. Even the Swan of Tuonela seems to have become extinct off record. I have the EMI Ormandy record of the complete suite.Last week I acquired his recording (2nd hand) of Strauss’s Don Quixote from, I think, 1963. Quite the best performance of this piece I have ever encountered and in great sound.

  2. Ormandy was a much-underrated conductor. I find that his recorded performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra are always worth hearing. His Sibelius is particularly special. Unfortunately, he had a blind spot where the 3rd and 6th Symphonies were concerned, declaring that he did not understand them and thus would not perform them. As a result, we don’t have a complete Sibelius symphony cycle from him, but his performances of those that he did play – 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 – are all excellent, including the remakes for RCA during the 1970s.

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