Sixten Ehrling and the Stockholm RSO-Jean Sibelius Symphony No. 2 

The original Mercury LP. Though not credited, the haunting cover art was most likely executed by the great George Maas (1910- 1988).
The original Mercury LP. Though not credited, the haunting cover art was most likely executed by the great George Maas (1910- 1988).

The 23 February 1952 issue of “The Billboard”, forerunner of today’s Billboard magazine, announced the recording of an integral cycle of Sibelius’ 7 Symphonies (see right). The composer was still living at that time and the project was slated for completion (with LPs on store shelves) by the opening of the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. In fact,Metronome Records, the label undertaking what was then the first complete cycle, would miss their deadline. The first installment, featuring the composer’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39 ( CLP 514), would not be issued until early 1953. Nonetheless, Metronome Records and their conductor Sixten Ehrling would be first across the finish line. 

The early 1950s were already populated with several of the finest Sibelius conductors and recordings from the likes of Serge Koussevitzky, Herbert von Karajan, Thomas Beecham, and Eugene Ormandy. And this is setting aside the pioneering 78rpm sets by the composer’s compatriot, conductor Robert Kajanus. Thus, 34-year-old Sixten Ehrling, at that time little known outside his native Sweden, was an unlikely choice to be entrusted with such an extraordinary task. But he and the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra triumphed, nowhere more so than in this incandescent account of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op. 43, a rarified performance with a searing climax in the finale. 

Born in Malmö, Sweden on 3 April 1918, Ehrling’s long musical career would take him worldwide and often not without controversy – his encyclopedic knowledge was matched by a legendary exactitude that sometimes placed him at odds with orchestras and management. Though he was once dubbed “the dour Swede”, Ehrling was a witty man, his humor often sharp but self-deprecating. And if his unrelenting perfectionism did not always win him may friends, it gained him countless admirers. A musical polymath who studied piano, organ, violin, composition, and conducting at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Music, he emerged a brilliant pianist, later recording Adolf Wiklund’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 10 for HMV ( DB11021) in 1948 with conductor Sten Frykberg and the Stockholms Konsertförenings Orkester. 

The July/August 1953 issue of High Fidelity, in which the first release in Ehrling’s Sibelius cycle (Symphony No. 1 on Mer- cury MG 10129) was first advertised
The July/August 1953 issue of High Fidelity, in which the first release in Ehrling’s Sibelius cycle (Symphony No. 1 on Mer- cury MG 10129) was first advertised

First, however, he served as repetiteur at the Stockholm Royal Opera (1936-1940). He continued his studies abroad, working with conductors Karl Böhm in Dresden (1941) and later with Albert Wolf in Paris (1946). Following a brief stint as conductor in Göteborg (1942-44), he returned to the Royal Opera for a 17-year stretch, first as staff conductor (1944-53), then as Royal Court Conductor (1953-1960), and finally – from 1976 until his death in 2005 – as Premier Royal Court Condcutor, the highest post attainable. 

From there, Ehrling made his name abroad, becoming the first internationally renowned Swedish conductor, assuming directorship of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from Paul Paray in 1963. Oddly, Mercury elected not to continue in Detroit under the “new management”, though only a decade before their partnership with Ehrling had proven so fruitful. His 10-year tenure there is preserved on record only by a pension fund in which he can be heard in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, and Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila ( Columbia CSP 158) and a DSO 60th Anniversary album ( DE-3-83A), the latter reprising the same Carnival Overture performance – both specially issued by the orchestra. Aside from a 2-year contract with the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra (1974-1976) – 32 years after he first held the post – he spent his remaining years as a conductor at large, leading many of the world’s great orchestras and appearing often at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he made his home beginning in the 1970s. 

His residency there proved fortuitous for an entire crop of conducting talent at the Juilliard (1973-1987) and Manhattan (1993-2005) Schools of Music, Ehrling helping to train the likes of Myung-Whun Chung, Kenneth Jean, Jo Ann Falletta, Christian Badea, and Andrew Litton. At the MET, perhaps his crowning achievement was a celebrated production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, given from February 1974 through April 1975 (3 cycles of the 4 operas, plus 3 performances of Die Walkűre). 

Sixten Ehrling, early in his conducting career, photo- graphed here in 1963 by Herman Ronninger (1895-1976). This was the year Ehrling would succeed Paul Paray as Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Sixten Ehrling, early in his conducting career, photo- graphed here in 1963 by Herman Ronninger (1895-1976). This was the year Ehrling would succeed Paul Paray as Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Apart from the Sibelius, he recorded only one other integral cycle, that of Berwald’s 4 Symphonies for the BIS label (795/796), made with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, no less – a heartwarming circling to his youthful beginnings. There are no Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, or Mahler cycles, but what survives is uniformly distinguished. The Sibelius Symphony cycle on Metronome/Mercury was not issued in England – in fact, it does not seem to have been distributed outside of Sweden and the USA, and even there the copy runs were possibly lower than average, all of which no doubt greatly mitigated against a lasting place for it in the catalog. And Ehrling’s cycle was released during the waning days of mono. Newer stereo recordings by bigger, though not better (!), names, and with bigger advertising dollars behind them would supplant the set’s brief renown. 

All 7 Symphonies in Ehrling’s traversal of the Sibelius canon are imbued with an elemental drive and unvarnished grandeur. No other cycle so fully embodies Sibelius’ famous credo: “Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water.” For this listener, Ehrling’s vision of the Second Symphony is particularly powerful. The Fourth Movement’s coda, not unlike that of the First Movement in Bruckner’s Ninth, is a daunting challenge for any conductor. The last great peroration of the brass, if not perfectly timed and terraced, results in an muted or enervated climax. Under Ehrling’s baton – and of course also, it must be said, by dint of the Stockholmers’ steely prowess and burning concentration, it is a blazing, primal cry, like no other version on record. 

The players clearly gave their all for Ehrling. His debut with them had been made only 3 years before, in which the 32-year-old conductor led Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps from memory. Sixten Ehrling died in New York City on 13 February 2005. He was 86. He was among the last living conductors to have known both Stravinsky and Sibelius. 

Interior of the Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien
Interior of the Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Music), Stockholm – venue for Metronome Record’s 1950s Sibelius cycle with Ehrling & the Stockholm RSO. © Stockholmskallan (Stockholm City Museum Photo ID No. D 1249, photographer unknown).

Metronome Records was founded in 1949 by Börje Ekberg and the brothers Anders and Lars Burman. The Sibelius cycle was the brainchild of the Swedish Radio Service’s studio engineer Kjell Stensson, who had long harbored an ambition to record all 7 of the Finnish master’s Symphonies, as well as the Violin Concerto and the Lemminkäinen Suite (also known as the Four Legends from the Kalevala). 

The seasoned conductor Tor Mann (1894-1974), more than 20 years Ehrling’s senior, was thought by many to be the logical choice. Not only was he Chief Conductor of the Sveriges Radios Symfoniorkester, he was also a fine Sibelian in his own right; a decade earlier, he had recorded Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 with the Stockholm Concert Association Orchestra for Telefunken ( 78: SK3322 / LP: Capitol P 8107). 

However, the intensity of the young Ehrling burned even brighter, and Stensson believed the project would be best served by the fierce perfectionism, analytical mindset and, perhaps most importantly, the absolute preparedness that Ehrling brought to bear on everything he touched. It proved to be an inspired choice, not only in practical terms (session time was at a premium and not a minute could be wasted), but also from an artistic standpoint, with Ehrling’s ardent determination galvanizing the orchestra. 

One example of Ehrling’s unflagging energy: On the same day (28 January 1952) he and the orchestra set down Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 – the beginning of their cycle – he led a production of Puccini’s “La Bohème” at the Swedish Opera. 

Lars Burman acted as producer of the series, Stensson the sound and balance engineer. Not widely known, the acoustics of the Musikaliska Akademien at Nybrokajen were deemed by both to be too constraining for the 78-strong orchestra and so the recording team routed the signal through the SF Studios at Råsunda to imbue the sound with a greater richness and amplitude before it was absorbed by the magnetophone bands for the final master. Metronome’s US partner, Mercury, executed the matrices from these tapes, though most of the vinyl – whether on the Metronome or Mercury label – was actually pressed in Sweden.

Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op. 43 – Two other accounts from Stockholm 

Tor Mann and the Orchestra des Konzertvereins
Capitol LP P-8107. Tor Mann and the Orchestra des Konzertvereins, Stockholm in Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony.

Recorded on 17 October 1942, this fine recording was also issued on Telefunken LP LSK 7007 and Telestar LP TR 11001. 

Neither of Mann’s Sibelius Symphony recordings has ever been issued on CD. 

Tor Mann can also be heard in the composer’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39 (Capitol LP P-8020) and in a “live” 25.11.1948 broadcast of the Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47, with soloist Charles Barkel (1898-1973), a pupil of Carl Flesch. This can be heard on Caprice CAP 21705 (4-CD box set; performance drawn from the archives of Swedish Radio). Barkel’s real name was Charles Andersson. 

Somewhat surprisingly, given his vast discography, this remains Dorati’s only commercial recording of a Sibelius Symphony. Two years later, with the LSO, he set down an album of Sibelius symphonic poems on HMV LP ASD 2486. There is additionally a 1960 recording of the composer’s Valse Triste, also with the LSO, on Mercury LP SR-90214. 

Why the paucity of Sibelius in his recorded output, I do not know, but Dorati proves himself a potent exponent of the composer and his Second is superb. 

Sixten Ehrling on Metronome Records 

Metronome MCEP 3037 (7” 45rpm EP) 

Little-known and extremely rare single of Sixten Ehrling conducting the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra’s rendition in a pairing of Johann Strauss II’s Overtures to Die Fledermaus and The Gypsy Baron. 

Like their Sibelius cycle, these performances were set down in the Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Music), Stockholm, in January 1953. To my knowledge, they have never been re-issued in any format. They are imbued with a palpable sense of occasion, as if they’d been recorded before a “live” audience. Hopefully some enterprising label will re-issue them. 

In May 1953 Ehrling mounted a new production of Die Fledermaus at the Swedish Royal Opera. Below is an undated (and uncredited) photo of the Maestro during rehearsals.

Metronome Records – two issues from the great Swedish classical and jazz label 

Leslie Jones conducts the Little Orchestra of London in 3 Symphonies by Haydn
Leslie Jones conducts the Little Orchestra of London in 3 Symphonies by Haydn

Leslie Jones conducts the Little Orchestra of London in 3 Symphonies by Haydn:

No. 12 in E-flat major
No. 63 in C major “La Roxelane”
No. 83 in G minor “La Poule” 

Originally issued by Pye, these recordings were licensed by Metronome and then later by Nonesuch. 

The copy shown at right was pressed in Denmark. The liner notes on the reverse side, by Helmut Wirth, are provided in German and French. 

Metronome also licensed Danish pianist’s Folmer Jensen’s Odeon recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concertos No. 12 K.414 & No. 21 K.467 ( MCLP 85009). The cover art is uncredited, alas. 

Metronome CLP 509 

Jacques Rachmilovich conducts the Stock- holm Radio Symphony Orchestra in two “Shakespearean Fantasies” by Tchaikovsky
Jacques Rachmilovich conducts the Stock- holm Radio Symphony Orchestra in two “Shakespearean Fantasies” by Tchaikovsky

Jacques Rachmilovich conducts the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra in two “Shakespearean Fantasies” by Tchaikovsky: 

The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasia Op. 18 Hamlet Fantasy Overture Op. 67a 

Both works were recorded in Stockholm in 1952, Rachmilovich’s Hamlet likely the first on LP, just beating to the post Fistoulari’s Parlophone account, made the same year, with the Philharmonia ( PMC 1014). His Tempest (or Storm) might also have been an LP debut, but in this case Zoltán Fekete and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra took honors with their 1951 rendition on Remington ( RLP 199-55). 

The cover art was executed by Karin-Ahl Feltzin of FM-Reklam. 

One reads, for instance, that in Furtwangler’s last appearance in the hall, made on 26 September 1950, he led the VPO in, among other works, Debussy’s La Mer. Or on 4 October 1933 one could have heard Jacques Thibaud in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 with Vaclav Talich conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. 

For Sixten Ehrling, 467 separate concerts are listed, most as conductor, but also as piano soloist. 

Above left: There is a fine biography of Ehrling (only available in Swedish) entitled “Maestro: Sixten Ehrling – En Dirigent och hans Epok” (“…A Conductor and his Epoch) by author Leif Aare – published in 1995 by Bokforlaget T. Fischer & Co. It numbers 281 pages and includes numerous archival photos, a complete index, and a basic discography. 

Above right: “Metronome Records: De Legendariska Aren” (…”The Legendary Years”). A lavishly illustrated history of the Swedish record label by Hakan Lahger & Lasse Ermhalm. Some 290 pages in length, the book includes a complete listing of all Metronome LP releases, an index, and a wealth of photographs. As with the Ehrling biography, it is only available in Swedish. The labels exploit’s as regards classical music, which were in fact modest, is only briefly touched upon. 

Below and opposite page: The signatures of conductor Sixten Ehrling and composer Jean Sibelius. 

Desert Island Discs – Ehrling conducts Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 – Mercury MG 10141 Bibliography & Acknowledgments 

Sixten Ehrling
Sixten Ehrling
  • The Billboard Magazine, 23 February 1952 – publ by R.S. Littleford Jr. & W.D. Littleford, Cincinatti, Ohio
  • “Sixten Ehrling, Accomplished Conductor, is Dead at 86” – by Allan Kozinn, The NY Times, 16 Feb 2005
  • “Sixten Ehrling” – by David Nice, The Guardian, 22 April 2005
  • Sixten Ehrling by Leif Aare – liner notes for Finlandia 3984-22713-2 CD release: Sibelius Symphonies 1-7, 1999 

Special thanks to: 

Lars Karlsson 
Assistant & Music Archivist
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra 

Nils-Goran Olve, knowledgable music expert extraordinaire

Elisabeth Ehrling, daughter of Sixten Ehrling 

Right: Capitol LP CTL 7064 (UK) and P 8226 (USA). Sixten Ehrling and the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Jean Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, or the Four Legends of the Kalevala Op. 22, recorded at the Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Music), Stockholm, on 7 December 1953. In the famous second movement, The Swan of Tuonela, Rolf Lännerholm (1912-1987) is the English Horn player. 

Ehrling’s traversal was the second, the first being that by Eugene Ormandy, who recorded the Suite with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music in December 1951 (Columbia Masterworks ML 4672). Select movements, in particular The Swan of Tuonela, had been recorded before, but theirs were the first complete cycles on record.