The young Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wanted to be a virtuoso violinist but it was in composition that his greatest talent lay. All his life, he was deeply connected to the natural world, and this love of Nature is expressed in much of his music.
I know of no better introduction to the music of Jean Sibelius than the two CD set of his Symphonies No. 1, 2, and 4, and Finlandia and the Karelia Suite by Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.
The earliest composition featured on this recording is the Karelia Suite, completed in 1893; the latest is the pensive Symphony No. 4, completed in 1911. All of the music on these discs is splendid, the performances inspired, and the recordings immersive.
Ashkenazy seems to have an innate understanding of Sibelius, and his conducting and interpretations shine here throughout.
As with many (most?) of the greatest composers, Sibelius faced a number of challenges and personal demons throughout his life. Though he lived a long and productive life, he wrote almost no new music after his brilliant tone poem Tapiola in 1926, 31 years before his death. He did complete a Symphony No. 8, but threw the score into his fireplace in 1945. Sibelius once remarked, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.”
To find out more about the life and music of Jean Sibelius, I’d like to direct your attention to an excellent two-part documentary film by Christopher Nupen, completed in 1984. It is available through the classical music streaming channel medici.tv (highly recommended) and Amazon.
German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) composed his Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder) in 1948 at the age of 84. These extraordinarily beautiful orchestral songs were the last completed compositions by Strauss, save for a song for soprano and piano called “Malven” composed later that same year and virtually unknown until 1984.
John Rockwell writes in the September 15, 1984 issue of the New York Times: “Strauss, who died in September 1949 at the age of 85, is widely believed to be the finest composer in the German song tradition after Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf, with an affinity for the soprano voice. In addition, his final compositions of the 1940’s are especially prized, blending autumnal mastery with late-blooming inspiration.”
The Four Last Songs were neither published nor performed until after Strauss’ death. Their first performance was on May 22, 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall in London by legendary soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) and Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Beim Schlafengehen [When Falling Asleep]
Im Abendrot [At Sunset]
Earlier, I wrote about the extraordinary recording of Also sprach Zarathustra by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Another indispensable Strauss recording is soprano Kiri Te Kanawa (who retired from professional singing just last month) singing Four Last Songs and six other Strauss orchestral songs with Sir Andrew Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical SK 92606), January 13-20, 1977.
Te Kanawa is the perfect soprano to sing Four Last Songs, and I doubt you will find a better performance. Six additional R. Strauss orchestral songs make this a recording that should be in every Strauss enthusiast’s collection.