Finland in London

July 20 2015

What Elgarian, even, knew of this recording of the Finnish National Orchestra, under Georg Schnéevoigt, playing Cockaigne at the Queen’s Hall in 1934?

They play as if they mean it. Peroration at 2:37. They get the Edwardian grandeur. The work had been premiered at Queen’s Hall in 1901. Finnish National Orchestra seems to be an old name for the Helsinki Philharmonic. Robert Kajanus had founded the ensemble in Russian days, in 1882, and ran it until 1932. (That makes him more or less the longest-serving director of an orchestra ever, tying with Ansermet and Mravinsky.) Kajanus was Sibelius’s champion in Finland. Schnéevoigt was his successor with the orchestra, but has never had his reputation.

This was its first visit to London. There is something political in their playing. In 1917 Finland had freed itself, after 108 years, from Russia, and returned to the West. But it did not return to Sweden; it became a nation. In the same way, every recorded performance by Paderewski is political. Of course, Finland’s absorption into Russia had given it the cultural charge which was released in part in Sibelius’s music. You can even hear Tchaikovsky in early Sibelius.

The clip is May or June 1934. Elgar had died in February. (He had made his second recording of the work, with the BBC SO, at Abbey Road in April ’33. It was his last appearance there, a mere 29 years before the Beatles’ first.)

The last of Sibelius’s five visits to England, to conduct English orchestras, had been in 1921. During the ’30s England became the second home of his music. Hamilton Harty and Cecil Gray championed him. The Columbia Graphophone (sic) Company issued recordings of the first two symphonies with the LSO under Kajanus in 1930. The HMV Sibelius Society issued other recordings by subscription, starting with symphonies three and five and Tapiola, LSO and Kajanus again, in 1932.

During the 1934 visit, the Finns performed five of the symphonies and recorded (through the Society?) at least numbers four and six. In the same year, Constant Lambert published his Music Ho!, A Study of Music in Decline, which ends with a long defence of Sibelius. It was Sibelius who could show the way forward.

Henry Wood gave all seven symphonies in the 1937 Proms. Thomas Beecham mounted a festival of six Sibelius concerts in 1938. Barbirolli took him up.

It was different in Germany. As far as I know, Klemperer and Furtwängler never recorded a Sibelius symphony. His reputation was also set back by Theodor Adorno. It was rescued, a little later, by Karajan (cf Kajanus). But Abbado never did Sibelius in Berlin; Rattle has had to reintroduce him. (I’m not much of a Sibelian either, come to that.)

Russia invaded Finland in 1939. We and the French proposed to enter the Winter War in support of Finland during our own Phoney War, but did not, because of difficulties with Norway and Sweden. Two years later, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been broken, we found ourselves on opposite sides in the so-called Continuation War, though the Finns said that they tolerated German troops on their soil only as a defence against Russia.

The Queen’s Hall opened in 1893 and was destroyed by a German bomb on the night of May 10 1941, hours after a performance by the London Philharmonic under Sargent of the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius (Muriel Brunskill, Webster Booth, Ronald Stear, Royal Choral Society). Pathé:

We get the Finns again here in Cockaigne. Since at one stage we see London Bridge, I’ll add that 1934 was also the year of Eric Coates’s London Bridge march.

The Hall did not “rise again”. Its Langham Place site, next to the BBC, is now occupied by a cramped concrete hotel, the Saint George’s.

Are these the only two pieces of film showing the Queen’s Hall?

1934 as a musical hinge year.

First recording of Sibelius 6, the one nobody plays, Finnish National Orchestra, Schnéevoigt, London, presumably Queen’s Hall, 1934:

First picture is of Sibelius’s villa Ainola (named after his wife Aino), Järvenpää, winter 1917

Sibelius wrote in 1943 that “the sixth symphony always reminds me of the scent of the first snow”.

4 Responses to “Finland in London”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Was it Bernstein who introduced the Vienna Philharmonic to Sibelius?

  2. davidderrick Says:

    “Finland’s absorption into Russia had given it the cultural charge which was released in part in Sibelius’s music.”

    But Sweden was the main background cultural presence in Finland. Perhaps not in music. And I suppose the influence of Tchaikovsky on Sibelius was superficial and confined to a few early pieces, such as the first symphony (not that that is an immature work). His first language was Swedish.

    Still, Russia, not Sweden was the grit which stimulated the Finnish cultural renaissance or birth.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Britten did not admire Sibelius (or Elgar) in the ’30s, but came round to him later.

    The other great champions of Sibelius in the ’30s were the Americans, especially the critic Olin Downes.


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