Most of my favorite composers plied their trade entirely or primarily during the 19th century. Two exceptions are Sibelius and Shostakovich. Shostakovich was the only one in the club to be born during the 20th century, while Sibelius straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, with much of his output coming during the 20th.
As I did with my earlier post on the music of Bruckner and Mahler, the latter being another 19th and 20th century straddler, I’m putting this list of recommended recordings and live performances together for anyone interested in exploring the work of these two towering music figures. Both men composed much more than orchestral music. But with the exception of a couple of Shostakovich’s string quartets, I listen far less to the rest of their output than I do the following pieces.
This is also not a comprehensive list of their orchestral works. There are additional tone poems by Sibelius that you may wish to seek out. A few of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies are not widely considered to be great works. I’m leaving those out and will also only be including a small selection of his other pieces for orchestra. But the works I’ll be recommending are a good starting point.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
I’ve read that this symphony made quite an impression when it premiered in 1899. Sibelius showed the world that he had his own, truly unique composing style and orchestral sound. The recording is a fairly new one led by a conductor who is making a huge name for himself, including signing a contract to become the next music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, one of the world’s top conducting positions – and he’s only 26 years old!
Symphony No. 2 George Szell conducts the Cleveland Orchestra
For what may be Sibelius’ most popular and performed symphony, I’ve chosen a legendary live 1970 performance given on tour in Tokyo by the Cleveland Orchestra under their longtime music director, George Szell, who died only a couple months later.
Symphony No. 3 Osmo Vänskä conducts the Minnesota Orchestra
From the most performed to possibly the least performed Sibelius symphony. But don’t let that dissuade you. I had the good fortune of seeing and hearing Osmo Vänskä lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in this piece 15-20 years ago.
Symphony No. 4 Eugene Ormandy conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra
This is incredibly dark, icy music, performed brilliantly by the Philadelphia Orchestra with their music director of over 40 years in an unsurpassed recording from 1954.
Symphony No. 5 Leonard Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
If number four is dark, the fifth is incredibly uplifting. Bernstein made two legendary recordings of the piece – with the New York and Vienna Philharmonics – but here he is leading the London Symphony Orchestra in a filmed performance from 1966.
Symphony No. 6 Leif Segerstam conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
As I mentioned above, Sibelius’ music stands out as unique in style among the great composers. And the sixth is unique even among Sibelius’ works. Segerstam doesn’t have the vaunted reputation of some of the other conductors I’m citing, but he did a tremendous job here.
Symphony No. 7 Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sibelius spent a good deal of time on an eighth symphony, but never published it. So we close out the symphonies at number seven, with another legendary conductor and his longtime orchestra.
Lemminkäinen Suite Eugene Ormandy conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra
Like Richard Strauss, another composer who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, Sibelius was known for composing a number of tone or symphonic poems. This one, also known as Four Legends from the Kalevala, is a four-part tone poem. One of the sections – The Swan of the Tuonela – is popular in its own right and probably performed far more often without the other three sections than with them.
En Saga Wilhelm Furtwangler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
This early tone poem is a big favorite of mine. Furtwangler was known mainly for conducting the standard Austro-German repertoire and conducted very little Sibelius, but this live performance is a wild ride that leads me to wish he had led more of the composer’s music than just En Saga and the Violin Concerto.
Finlandia Sir John Barbirolli conducts the Hallé Orchestra
This popular work holds a great deal of sentimental value for many Finns. Barbirolli was one of a number of British conductors who have been closely associated with Sibelius’ music
Valse Triste Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sibelius gives his own, Finnish flair to one of Vienna’s most popular musical forms. Herbie the K and his Berliners return.
Tapiola Neeme Järvi conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Another great Tone Poem; this one a later work than those I’ve already listed. Neeme Järvi was one of classical music’s most prolific conductors when it came to making recordings.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1 Karel Ančerl conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
The young Shostakovich showed a lot of promise with this work – promise that would be fulfilled in the years to come. Ančerl and his Czech orchestra were a potent combination, as they show here.
Symphony No. 4 Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducts the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra
Shostakovich composed through the Stalin years in the Soviet Union, when nobody was safe from sudden and unwarranted state-sponsored persecution. After one of his other works from the same period as the fourth symphony was criticized by Stalin himself, Shostakovich withdrew the symphony, which wasn’t premiered until a quarter-century later – after Stalin had passed away. No other conductor is more identified with the work than Rozhdestvensky.
Symphony No. 5 Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic
This is likely Shostakovich’s most popular and performed symphony. As is the case with Sibelius’ fifth, Bernstein arguably owned it.
Symphony No. 7 Leonard Bernstein conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Nicknamed ‘Leningrad,’ this symphony was premiered there during 1942 – with the composer present – under unimaginably brutal circumstances. The Nazi’s were laying siege to the city and pounding it regularly with artillery. The premier performance – from Leningrad and performed by musicians who were, in many cases, starving – was filtered out to German soldiers over loud-speakers as a show of defiance. Another legendary recording from Bernstein, this time leading an orchestra with which he is not normally associated.
Symphony No. 8 Kirill Kondrashin conducts the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
Another towering masterpiece. It isn’t performed as often as the seventh, but I prefer it. Kondrashin was one of the great Soviet conductors. He later defected to the West.
Symphony No. 9 Bernard Haitink conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
This work is lighter in mood than the symphonies that surround it (7, 8, 10, 11). Haitink and the LPO do a great job with it.
Symphony No. 10 Vasily Petrenko conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Another of the more popular and frequently performed of the symphonies. Petrenko may not be held in the same regard as some of the other legendary conductors on here, but his Liverpool orchestra is on fire in this faster-than-average and riveting performance.
Symphony No. 11 Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Another typically Shostakovich gut-wrenching work – with a performance to match.
Symphony No. 13 Kirill Kondrashin conducts the Moscow Phiharmonic Orchestra
Nicknamed ‘Babi Yar,’ this work for orchestra, chorus and bass (vocalist), was written in commemoration of the Nazi massacre of Ukrainian Jews at the site known by that name. This performance by Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic was given two days after the symphony’s premier.
Symphony No. 14 Mstislav Rostropovich conducts the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
I have to confess that I’ve never warmed to this symphony, which is scored for chamber orchestra, soprano and bass. Yet it’s considered a major work, so I thought it should be included. Rostropovich was one of the world’s leading cellists for years before he turned his attention to conducting. He eventually also defected to the West.
Symphony No. 15 Kurt Sanderling conducts the Berlin Symphony Orchestra
Shostakovich’s final symphony was a great one. This is the earlier of Kurt Sanderling’s two recordings of it, and it’s justifiably held in very high esteem.
Chamber Symphony in C-Minor Rudolph Barshai conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
The conductor of this recording, Rudolph Barshai, orchestrated Shostakovich’s brilliant eighth string quartet for string orchestra with the composer’s approval.
Violin Concerto No. 1 David Oistrakh (violinist) with Evgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
This may be the most emotionally-draining concerto ever composed. It’s also another piece that was premiered years after its completion due to a denunciation from Stalin. The performers for this recording gave the work’s premier in 1955 – again, after Stalin had passed away. Oistrakh and Mravinsky were two of the bigger classical music figures of the Soviet Union for many years.
Jazz Suite No. 2 Riccardo Chailly conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam
Shostakovich tried his hand at a purely American musical genre for the State Jazz Orchestra. Interestingly, Chailly conducted a handful of Shostakovich’s lesser-known orchestral works, but I can’t find any evidence that he recorded any of the symphonies.
That’s all she wrote, folks. Anyone who feels I’ve left out any orchestral music by these two composers – or recording of those pieces I have included – that deserves to be represented here should feel free to include their two-cents in the comments below. I may eventually do this for other composers.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back with my next cheesesteak review Wednesday or Thursday.
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