One of my all-time favourite symphonies is the Fifth by the Finn Jean Sibelius. I’m certainly not alone in this because the Fifth is one of the most-played of C20th symphonies. I have a number of recordings and have heard it live on many occasions, including in Finland. In 1997 the label BIS, who recorded a complete 80-hour edition of Sibelius’ music, released a CD with two versions of the Fifth, one of which had never been heard before: an original version from 1915, pre-dating the final version by four years. During that time Sibelius made many revisions small and large to the music.
I had avoided this disc, concerned that hearing an alternate version might spoil how I heard the Fifth. However, a couple of weeks ago I found a secondhand copy. It has been a revelation and a huge pleasure, and I am so grateful to BIS for making it available. I know the Fifth so well that I can appreciate every change Sibelius made. From a composer’s perspective it is fascinating to hear the decisions Sibelius took to make the Fifth the focused masterpiece it is, but some of what he changed or cut out is almost as beautiful. I would compare the experience to finding new paths through an old and familiar forest. If you follow the final path you get familiar rewards. But the 1915 version is like wandering off the usual path and experiencing more of the forest which surrounds the usual path. (It’s on youtube, along with an astonishing quantity of Sibelius’ music).