An essay of the recordings written by PhD Carl-Gunnar Åhlén.
On Monday, September 28th 1908 the celebrated opera singer John Forsell presented a song concert with Armas Järnefelt at the piano. We shall probably never know for sure if the famous American record producer Fred Gaisberg attended the concert at the Music Academy, but demonstrably he was in Stockholm on that very day. He had just arrived from Kristiania (Oslo) where he had made 56 recordings, and before that from Copenhagen where he had produced 127 sides of recordings. Ahead of him lay a hundred virgin wax discs, waiting to be engraved with musical sounds in a suite at the luxurious Hotel Rydberg, where the representatives of the Gramophone Company usually stayed. After his tour Gaisberg would return to England where the company’s European head office was located at Hayes, Middlesex, a few miles outside London. However, the records would not be pressed there, but in Hannover, the German city where Emil Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone was born.
The economic success of the company had made it possible for Gaisberg to make celebrated recordings with a large number of international and local stars. John Forsell was his principal investment on the Swedish record market. Over the years, the Gramophone Company (aka His Master’s Voice, later EMI) would make over two hundred recordings with the future court singer and director of the national opera.
At the time, it was customary for the record company to keep detailed logs of recording sessions. They were be used as the basis for label credits and royalty payments. But the name of the accompanying pianist or the conductor of the studio orchestra was not important. He would just receive a one-time payment from the petty cash after the session.
Did Armas Järnefelt accompany John Forsell in the recording session in October 1908? Might it not as well have been Gurli Forsell, Märtha Olson or Hjalmar Meissner, the record company’s contact person in Sweden, who also participated in several recording sessions with Forsell and sometimes was even named on the record labels? Like Järnefelt, he was born in Finland and was active both as pianist and conductor.
The answer to this question may lie hidden in some lost diary, but until it has been found, we can only consider the circumstances. The recording session took place almost immediately after the concert mentioned. The opera house, Järnefelt’s place of work, was located at Gustav Adolfs torg, close to Hotel Rydberg, where the recordings were made. In the course of the coming week, Järnefelt would conduct Eugen Onegin with Forsell in the title role at the Opera. We also know that Järnefelt had no other engagements during the same week.
Later on the concert would be followed by similar concert in 1909, and after Forsell had returned from his American engagement, ten annual so-called ”ballad concerts” at the Opera in 1911 – 1918, in some years both in spring and autumn. The high point of their long friendship was their 60th birthdays, in 1928 and 1929. This was celebrated with Mozart’s Don Juan, with Forsell in the title role and Järnefelt conducting in the orchestra pit. Finally, we can also compare the playing of the anonymous pianist on the 1908 session with the recordings of Sibelius’ ”Svarta rosor”, made two and four years earlier, where Järnefelt is certifiably the pianist.
In the course of his only visit to Stockholm, Gaisberg recorded 24 sides with Forsell. The repertoire consisted mostly of songs by Scandinavian composers, Swedish by E. G. Geijer, E. Sjögren and A. F. Lindblad, Norwegian by Grieg and A. Backer-Gröndahl, and some Finnish, one by Sibelius and two by Järnefelt (which also speaks for his presence here). On the same sessions there were also a handful of recordings with orchestra, including Sebastiano’s dance from d’Albert’s opera ”The Lowlands”, which was going to have its premiere in Stockholm in a few weeks’ time and also become Forsell’s final new role in New York. From his portfolio, he also picked up a few older numbers: an aria from Tannhäuser and Onegin’s aria from Eugene Onegin. However, these remained unissued.
The Gramophone Company’s recording sessions were actually just a brief stop on Will Gaisberg’s (Fred’s younger brother) regular trips to Russia. His first visit to Stockholm was in spring 1904. From his return visit in autumn 1904, he sent 179 wax recordings to Hannover, to be processed there into metal masters and further sent to Hayes for listening and evaluation. Among these were ten recordings by the 33-year old singer Maikki Järnefelt, accompanied by her husband Armas: six ten-inch, three seven-inch and one twelve-inch recording.
The order in which the sides were recorded is revealed by the matrix numbers. The first title, ”Sunnuntaina” (”Söndag”/”Sunday”), Armas’ best known song, was recorded without a mishap. But the next title, ”Der Lenz”, a composition by Eugen Hildach who had also been the teacher of Maikki’s teacher Julius Hey, ended unexpectedly with an exchange of words. We cannot hear the exact words, just a heated feminine voice and a male voice. Probably Gaisberg was just trying to explain that a song with a duration of a hundred seconds only was not enough for a three-minute disc. Afterwards the session continues with three smaller two-minute (seven-inch) discs: ”Meine Liebe ist grün” by Brahms, ”Stig, sol” by Johannes Backer-Lunde and ”Herre, taend Dine stjernor” by Leopold Rosenfeld. After that, Gaisberg may have suggested that they record two songs on a four-minute (12 inch) disc: ”Solsken” by Järnefelt and ”Svarta rosor” by Sibelius. Next Gaisberg tried again to fit two songs on one side: two short songs by Oskar Merikanto. The little concert closed with a folk song pastiche by Armas.
Maikki’s voice is close to a mezzosoprano but it has an exceptional range, where the high notes are characterised by the carrying power of the Marchesi school. The middle register is wholesome, without the least vibrato. In the ”Nordisk familjebok”, Eugen Fahlstedt writes: ”Her voice is exceptionally fresh, even, resonant and flexible, her execution full of life and expressiveness, the temperament explosive”.
Fahlstedt is right: her temperament is truly explosive. When she became mad, she cannot have been easy to deal with. This is highlighted in “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote”, a song by Sibelius to the poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Here she rises as an artist and a human being. Her temperament hits the unsuspecting listener in hot blasts. The years that have passed since the recording are drawn away like a sliding door, and suddenly she is standing there in front of us, wild with fury and irresistibly beautiful in her holy wrath.
But in which month and on which day were these recordings made? The exact date is not known. Our first guess would be in connection with the couple’s joint debut at the Stockholm opera. On Wednesday, November 16th Armas was rehearsing the orchestra for the next day’s performance of Tannhäuser. On Friday, he was rehearsing Valkyrian for four hours, on Saturday he worked ninety minutes and Monday night there was a gala presentation of Valkyrian, which was then performed in Stockholm for the 34th time. The red lanterns shone outside the opera house and the three crown princes, Gustav, Carl and Eugen, adorned the royal box with their presence. But the protagonists that evening were undoubtedly Maikki in the title role and Armas in the orchestra pit. At that time quest conductors at the Stockholm Opera were not usual. Both were a great success, and on the following morning, November 22nd, the opera board decided to extend the guest appearance by one more performance, without additional rehearsals. A repeat performance of Tannhäuser would be presented on the following Thursday. This meant that they suddenly had a few free days at their disposal. Perhaps the couple spent Tuesday to select and rehearse a few suitably brief songs, so that Wednesday 23th could have been devoted to recording them. The somewhat careless and nonchalant piano playing on the recordings suggests inadequate preparation.
A note in the annals of the Finnish male choir Muntra Musikanter puts a question mark to this excellent thesis. The choir recorded seven songs in Helsinki on Friday, November 25th, only two days later. However, in January 1913 the record company’s engineers showed that it was indeed possible to finish a recording session in Stockholm on a Tuesday and continue in Helsinki next Thursday, having meanwhile crossed the Gulf of Bothnia on a steamboat with all their equipment. However, Will Gaisberg’s diaries confirm that Maikki’s first recording session took place sometime in October, which suggests that the couple may have made a trip to Stockholm especially for the recording session.
On the other hand, it is possible to determine the approximate date of the couple’s next recording session, this time at Hotel Kämp in Helsinki. On Wednesday, January 9th, the couple had appeared it a concert in the Auditorium of the University of Helsinki. The program included “Titania”, “Kanteleelle” and a lullaby, all by Armas. As an extra number, Maikki sang his “Solsken”. All these songs, as well as two songs by Sibelius were now recorded, possibly a few days before or more likely just after the concert.
This time, too, Armas had his name printed on the record labels. This had become a standard practice in Finland, where the leading singers were regularly accompanied by prominent pianists. At this time the Järnefelts were already separated, and Maikki had met her fate in Italy. Her future husband was Selim Palmgren, a Busoni pupil who was making a living as a freelance pianist. They would soon become married. At the recording session, after his six songs Armas handed the piano chair over to his rival, who had chosen a song of his own with the provocative title “Du var mig mera nära” (You were closer to me). How Armas reacted to these words has not been written down in history.
This time the producer and engineer was the German Fritz Hampe. Four years earlier he had started making recordings in Cairo and earlier this year he had founded a branch office for the Gramophone Company in Alexandria, which also functioned as a base for extended operations in North Africa and recording expeditions to Turkey, Greece and Albania. As a builder of the recording empire, his role was equal to the Gaisberg brothers.
In actual fact we should probably save the reader from all these tiring details of the circumstances the joint recording career of Maikki and Armas. The loss of the recording ledgers can be blamed on the conventional lawyers who had noted that there was no legal obligation to save the accounts longer than for ten years. Consequently the receipts and notes from the company’s first ten years were discarded to the black dustbin of history, to the dismay of future discographers who were doomed to spending lifetimes reconstructing recording history from matrix numbers and dates stamped on letters sent home by the company’s travelling engineers. Fortunately this barbarian practice was stopped soon, and the company started to archive both diaries and correspondence.
However, these details also serve another purpose. They show that Armas Järnefelt had demonstrably a personal contact with some of the key personalities of the incipient mass medium, the gramophone industry. It is proof of his modest personality that he never misused these contacts.
The above-mentioned small song recitals featuring Armas Järnefelt at the piano are one of the three main parts of his recorded heritage. The two other groups are his recordings as conductor, and live recordings. As an appendix to the first group, there are also four recordings of opera arias for Pathé with his second wife Liva (née Edström).
Pathé was a French company founded by the brothers Chares and Émile Pathé. As early as 1894 they had built a factory for wax cylinders and cheap phonographs. Ten years later there were already Pathé factories in London, Milano, Brussels, Amsterdam and Moscow. The company’s catalogue contained twelve thousand titles, and it was the first in the world to make its masters on a medium different from medium in which they were published. The master recordings were cut on wax cylinders three decimetres long, which were so closely engraved that they allowed twenty minutes of playing time at a speed high enough for best sound quality. Instead of the lateral cut of standard gramophone records, the stylus on Pathé recordings move vertically, up and down. By a still unknown pantographic method the master recordings were then transferred onto discs in five different sized, from seventeen to thirty-five centimetres in diameter.
The name of the Norwegian Pathé representative was William Johansen. At the same time as he acquired Dansk Fonograf Magasin in Denmark and Svenska Musikaffären in Sweden in 1915, he changed his name to Farre to avoid confusion with a competitor with a similar name. In September the next year, his Swedish branch made 186 recordings in Stockholm, probably at the music shop with the prestigious address Birger Jarlsgatan 1. On most recordings the accompanist was the opera’s rehearsal pianist John Cederlund, while Armas Järnefelt only accompanied his wife. On the master recordings there would have been room for six- eight titles, but only four recordings were released on two 27-cm double-sided discs which were pressed in France. A rounded stylus would have been best for the transfer of the discs, but in this case only a standard stylus was available, which explains the excessive background noise.
The second group consists of recordings for two German record labels, first between 1928 and 1931 for Odeon with the Berlin state opera orchestra (pseudonymously), and finally in 1943 for Polydor / Siemens Spezial with musicians from the Deutsche Opernhaus in Charlottenburg, which was bombed by the British in November the same year. A number of recordings were also made in 1929 and 1931 in Stockholm with his own orchestra, the Royal Court Orchestra, but most of them were never issued.
The Odeon label was part of a multinational company originally founded by the Swedish mechanic Carl Lindström, who was born in Södertälje but moved to Berlin as a young man. At the end of the street where he lived in Berlin he had built a large factory complex, where thousands of gramophones and hundreds of thousands of records were manufactures every day. Today the building is a protected cultural destination and the home of numerous small businesses. In the 1920s it housed a large studio for orchestral recordings and a couple of smaller studios. This is the location where Armas Järnefelt started making his Odeon recordings on Saturday June 9th, 1928, with musicians from the Staatsoper at Unter den Linden.
What forces had convinced him to return to the world of record-making after so many years? A possible link is the music publisher Otto Hirsch, one of the founders of Konsertföreningen (the Stockholm Concert Society) and a driving force behind the building of the new Concert Hall in Stockholm. He was also the owner of Hirschs pianomagasin A/B, which represented Grotrian - Steinway pianos in Sweden and had opened a store at Kungsgatan, next to the Concert Hall. Already before the opening of the store, the company had announced that Armas Järnefelt, the Royal Court Conductor, would give “artistic guidance” to all purchasers of Steinway pianos. On March 11, 1928, the last advertisement to this effect appeared on the orchestra’s printed program leaflet. On the next program, the advertisement claimed that “The new gramophone is a perfect musical instrument. Try it at Hirsch’s, at the Concert Hall”.
The enemy had won and Armas had lost an extra source of income. But during the two and half years he had spent at the music store he cannot have helped noting that gramophones were easier to sell than pianos. And regular royalties from record sales would also be a nice pension plan.
On the first day at Odeon’s studio no. 1, he recorded Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite no. 1, music from Kurt Atterberg’s ballet De fåvitska jungfrurna and a couple of Tor Aulin’s Swedish Dances. When Armas returned to work on the following Tuesday, just two weeks had passed since his older colleague Robert Kajanus had conducted Sibelius’ Finlandia and Valse triste for His Master’s Voice. On Tuesday, June 12 Järnefelt recorded the same works for Odeon, followed by his own Berceuse. Test recordings of the Kajanus recording have never been found, but Järnefelt’s versions helped to spread the fame of the orchestra and the compositions all over the world.
On the following day, Järnefelt closed the sessions with a waltz by his ex-wife’s new husband, two parts from Peterson-Berger’s popular suite Frösöblomster (Blossoms from Frösö), and the prelude to the opera Bäckahästen by Kurt Atterberg. On Tuesday, he had already recorded the finale of Atterberg’s fourth symphony.
All together Järnefelt would make four trips to Berlin for Odeon. He was already back in the autumn for two days’ work at studio no. 2 with a smaller ensemble. On Tuesday September 28 he recorded short compositions by Stenhammar, Peterson-Berger (more blossoms from Frösö), arrangements of Bellman’s songs and orchestral titbits from Atterberg’s opera Bäckahästen. The following day was mostly dedicated to Rangström and Grieg. All the recordings were put on the market.
Järnefelt was less successful in marketing his own orchestra, the Royal Court Orchestra. On January 1st, 1929 a large number of recordings was made at the Auditorium, Stockholm’s recently closed old concert hall. This time the repertoire was not so much based on what Järnefelt wanted to conduct but what Odeon thought would sell. In addition to two dances by Tchaikovsky, only two composers were considered: Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Järnefelt. None of them were allocated enough time for rehearsals. Of the eight sides recorded, only three were released: a number from Peterson-Berger’s opera Arnljot, and the dances by Tchaikovsky.
When Järnefelt returned to Berlin again after a finished season in Stockholm, he must have been somewhat disillusioned. The emphasis was now on Russian and Polish music, in addition to Nordic, but there was hardly anything from the list of works corresponding to forty double-sided records which he had written down in his black notebook, which is now deposited at the Swedish Museum of Performing Arts in Stockholm. Out of fifty suggested orchestral works, and extracts from operas, only eight were recorded. Odeon was not interested in finding out how Järnefelt would handle Beethoven’s sixth and Mendelssohn’s fourth, or Goldmarks Ländliche Hochzeit. The company was equally uninterested in the tone poems he would have liked to record: Les prèludes by Liszt, Schéheradzade by Rimsky-Korsakov, Dance Macabre by Saint-Saens, Moldau by Smetana and Don Juan by Richard Strauss. The eleven standard overtures did not attract them either: Mendelssohn’s Hebrides, Nicolai’s Die lustigen Witwen der Windsor, Rossini’s Wilhelm Tell, Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger, Weber’s Oberon and Freischütz, Mozart’s Il flauto magico, La nozze di Figaro and Einführung aus dem Serai, as well as Mignon by Thomas.
The court conductor from remote Stockholm was obviously not a commercial attraction for Odeon, as the company already had the conductors of the Berlin and Vienna operas in the catalogue, as well as several cheap studio conductors who would record anything to order. But at least the company thought they would make some money in Sweden with two currently popular opera singers, the 32-year old baritone Einar Larson and the 38-year old soprano Greta Söderman.
So on Friday, June 7th 1929, Armas Järnefelt stood again in Odeon’s large studio no. 1 for remakes of Sibelius’ King Christian suite and Lyadov’s Enchanted Lake. Later on the same day the activities were moved to the smaller studio 2 and were now focused on recording four parts from the six-part suite ”From all countries”, by the Polish composer Moritz Moszkowski. On the following day the recordings continued in studio 2. After Lyadov’s condensed Kikimora, where we can still feel Järnefelt’s talent for creating a feeling of breathless expectation, and Svendsen’s lively Norwegian artists’ carnival, it was time to let Einar Larson sing. Two arias from Wagner’s Tannhäuser and one from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydike closed Saturday’s session. Monday morning Armas Järnefelt was back at the large studio to conduct Hugo Alfven’s Midsommarvaka. After that, he cut Glinka’s Kamarinskaya and let Einar Larson sing his Söndag.
After a warm-up with some minor works by Johann Strauss on Tuesday, Larson and Söderman work continued with a duet from Hallén’s opera Valdemarsskatten, and Larson finished Gluck and Järnefelt. On Thursday 13th, the year’s recordings were closed with one more duet from Österbottningarna (The Ostrobothnians) by Leevi Madetoja, and songs by Hannikainen and Pergament coupled on a Larson disc.
The economic depression hurt the German record industry badly. On June 1st 1930 Järnefelt made his last trip to Berlin, again with Einar Larson. This time they had to work in the smaller studio 2 where he made an almost complete recording of Alexander Glazunov’s ballet The seasons and some smaller pieces by Handel, Svendsen and himself. Thursday June 5th it was Larson’s turn to sing a selection of Swedish songs by Rangström, Eklöf and Järnefelt. He was also allowed to make a recording of arias from Donizetti’s opera Leonora, which had just been staged again for a new premiere.
In 1931, Järnefelt was able to convince the Swedish branch of Odeon to let him record four excerpts from his music to the silent film Sången om den eldröda blomman (The song of the scarlet blossom). This took place on September 17th in Odeon’s studios at the Fenix Palace in Stockholm. Over the years, he recorded a total of 97 sides for Odeon, of which 87 were released. Perhaps Järnefelt was so closely associated with the German record company that His Master’s Voice apparently did not consider him when they started to record the most important works of Jean Sibelius at the beginning of the 1930s. Järnefelt finally had his opportunity ten years later.
The German Sibelius Society was founded during the war at the initiative of the composer Yrjö Kilpinen and the secretary of the Finnish embassy in Berlin, Hans R. Martola. The founding day was the second anniversary of Germany’s occupation of Denmark and Norway, and the society set out to create new recordings of Sibelius’ important orchestral works. For this reason Armas Järnefelt and Anja Ignatius-Hirvensalo flew to Berlin to record Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in Deutsche Grammophon’s studio no. 9. The work proceeded quickly. The first two parts were finished between nine in the morning and six in the evening, including an hour’s lunch break. The third part and remakes were completed the next morning.
The third category, live recordings, raises a major question. Why has nothing been preserved of his work at the opera houses in Stockholm and Helsinki? Possibilities of making recordings existed already, as both the Swedish and Finnish national radios had suitable equipment in the 1930s. Swedish radio used wire recorders to record all major productions already during the war, including many with Järnefelt. As late as June 10th, 1945, Swedish radio broadcast a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio featuring Irma Björck in the title role, conducted by Järnefelt several years earlier. Why was the recording erased and the tape reused during the eighteen-month period until the wire recording system was discarded? Why was a recording of the Barber of Sevilla from January 15, 1945 considered important enough to be transferred on expensive lacquer discs for preservation? Was it because Issay Dobrowen was thought to be more important for posterity than Järnefelt?
It seems likely that neither the Swedish nor the Finnish radio producers understood the uniqueness of Järnefelt’s art. Perhaps he was considered pedestrian, always accessible and too often heard. When we today listen to the snippets of sound that have been preserved more or less accidentally, we comprehend the scope of the ignorance of his contemporaries.
Even though there are no preserved examples of Järnefelt conducting his two house Gods, Mozart and Beethoven, we can at least hear brief samples of his other idols, Wagner and Liszt.
For unknown reasons. Swedish radio decided two preserve two lacquer discs to preserve the soon sixty-year old court singer David Stockmann singing Siegmund’s spring song from a Wagner concert at Skansen on 10 August 1939. On the backside of the discs there was room for the introduction to Wotan’s farewell with Joel Berglund but unfortunately nothing from the rest. The audio documentation of Järnefelt’s work at the opera begins and ends with these precious minutes.
On the other hand, we know that the two lacquer discs with excerpts from the Franz Liszt concert on 1 March 1943 were ordered by Johan von Utfall from the international department of radio. Unfortunately the coating of the discs is peeling off, and it is difficult to prevent the pickup from jumping from the grooves. But we are grateful for what we get…
Lars Lalin was an enthusiast who built in the mid-thirties his own recording machine of professional quality. Unlike radio, he used German gelatine-coated discs, and as they have been protected from heat and humidity, they have retained a sound quality almost as good as on radio recordings. Thanks to him, we can hear four minutes and fifty seconds of the last 23 minutes of Robert Schumann’s Paradise and Peri from Koncerthuset’s large hall on 21 March 1938. These recordings were never intended for archiving, which gives them extra credibility.
The rest of the documentation consists of Armas Järnefelt conducting his own works and those of his brother-in-law, Jean Sibelius. Many of them were made in connection with their respective birthdays. On the day of Armas’ 80th birthday, Swedish radio broadcast a concert with him conducting. The first part of the concert, where the Finnish soprano Aulikki Rautawaara sang four of his songs, has been preserved, but typically not the rest, where he conducted Sibelius’ fourth symphony with the radio symphony orchestra.
A few months later Finnish radio broadcast Järnefelt’s cantata “The faces of the fatherland” (Isänmaan kasvot) with the Helsinki symphony orchestra, soprano Irja Aholainen, baritone Oiva Soini and two choirs. This recording, and three preserved recordings of Sibelius symphonies, with the Helsinki symphony orchestra alone or augmented by the Finnish radio orchestra, reveal Järnefelt’s greatness as conductor. He demonstrated here a vision of the work which makes every detail subordinate to the whole in a way which never challenges the symphony’s demands for truth.
But it seems that never insisted on conducting his brother-in-law’s symphonies. He only made himself available when no one else was in line, which shows the humble and sympathetic side of his personality.
Järnefelt only conducted the unworldly and understated sixth symphony in d minor (opus 104) twice, for the first time on 18 April 1941 with the Helsinki symphony. Unfortunately the recording is not perfect, but over-emphasised at times.
The second symphony in D major op. 43 he conducted ten times over a period of years, with various orchestras. The first time was in 1903 with the Stockholm concert society orchestra with its first ad hoc personnel, the second time in Gothenburg in 1907 with the recently founded symphony orchestra and the third time in 1910 with the Royal Court Orchestra. Then there was a delay of seventeen years until he conducted the symphony again in Gothenburg.
On the jubilee concert 8 December 1945, Jean Sibelius’ 80th birthday, he shared the podium with Georg Schnéevoigt, who was responsible for the first part of the concert. The concert was broadcast both in Sweden and Finland and recorded by both radio stations. The Swedish version has the better sound quality.
The 85th birthday concert was also broadcast live in both countries, but only parts were recorded. The second part, with two songs by the soprano Aulikki Rautawaara, the prelude the Shakespeare’s Storm and the cantata Väinö’s song with massed choirs, is preserved on two 33 rpm discs in the archives of Swedish radio. But the first symphony in e minor opus 39, which Järnefelt conducted as many as thirteen times, landed finally by an unknown route in a showcase at the Sibelius Museum in Turku, divided on several lacquer discs.
The concert on 8 December 1950 was originally recorded on magnetic tape, but we do not know why it was eventually transferred on an inferior medium by an incompetent staff member. During the first three parts, the sound quality is acceptable, but in the finale, another person seems to have taken charge. Instead of clear overlaps, the responsible person has turned down the music at the end of each side, and at the end, there is a fade-out during the final pizzicato before the applause starts. The exposure to light in the museum showcase has not helped either, but after several years’ experiments with sound restoration, the results have now been deemed ripe for publication. We hope that future listeners will find the results worthwhile.
© Carl-Gunnar Åhlén