Sibelius as a conductor

There is only one legitimate audio recording of Jean Sibelius conducting skills. In January of 1939, much to everyone’s surprise, Sibelius made a surprise comeback after being off the radar for over ten years. The piece that he conducted was the short Andante Festivo, which in itself isn’t an extremely difficult piece to conduct but still requires great precision to keep all the string players in sync. The concert was broadcast via the radio in honor of New York’s World Exhibition. Jean Sibelius was pressured to conduct the piece by his good friend Olin Downes, who was a well known New York Times critic at the time.

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Olin Downes in 1947

The members of the orchestra who witnessed Sibelius conducting said that it was a once in a lifetime experience to play the piece while being conducted by Jean Sibelius himself. “The official conductor Toivo Haapanen gave the baton to Sibelius, we practiced it through once with a couple of pauses. After only playing it through once with Sibelius as the conductor, it was recorded in one take”, concertmaster Sulo Aro later remembered that;“He gave the starting beat by nodding his head continuing to conduct sometimes with his hand inside his jacket or pants pockets. He made grand gestures with his baton hand so his shaky hands didn’t seen to disturb him at all”

The exceptional french horn player Holger Fransman followed the recording session very closely.

The piece is mainly written for a string orchestra so us playing brass instruments had a free pass during the recording of the song. We still stayed to watch Sibelius himself as the conductor. He took hold of the baton with both his hands, lifted it over his head and first then released his other hand. The conducting after that went relatively smoothly. Taking into consideration that Sibelius is not a conductor himself bytrade, all the bars went according to the book.

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Holger Fransman and Armi Liisa Fransman's grave

One of the conductor’s daughter's Katarina Ilves was also present during the recording session and she remembers the situation very well. “After the first couple of bars during their practice run, father interrupted the playing and said; ‘more poetic, much more poetic’.” Katrina later goes on saying that the orchestra played like never before just as Sibelius had intended when composing his music. Never had she heard her fathers music being performed with such passion and flare than during that recording of 1939 in New York.

Using his privilege as the composer of the work, he now and then deviates considerably from the tempo in the score. The tempo of the recording is one of the slowest ever to be recorded. Sibelius´ version was around the six minute marker in length. In comparison the same song was conducted by Nils-Eric Fougstedt in around 5 minutes and Jorma Panula in 3 minutes 38 seconds.

It wasn’t until the 1990´s that the official recording of Jean Sibelius conducting the piece was released to the public.

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The composer's son-in-law Arvi Paloheimo escorting Jean Sibelius from his last performance as a conductor in 1939.

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In 1939 #JeanSibelius made a surprise visit to New York where one of his compositions "Andante Festivo" was being audio...

Posted by StopOver.fi - Sibelius Finland Experience on Wednesday, July 29, 2015

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