There was a time when true champions of Jan Sibelius’ music were far fewer than today – a look at the programs of the New York Philharmonic from 1917 to 1927 for instance reveals numerous performances of the brief Finlandia and Swan of Tuonela but not one of any of the seven symphonies. It was easier to come upon Chiaffarelli’s Prelude to a Merry Play or Mana-Zucca’s Fugato Humoresque on Dixie. So it must have been a kind of heaven to have such a devoted and effective advocate as Sibelius’ romantically bearded countryman Robert Kajanus, a Nikisch of the North. He took up the cause early on and stayed with it, often with the Helsingfors Philharmonic which he organized in 1886.

Forty-four years later in London, with a subsidy from the Finnish government to help what was not considered a sure-fire project, Kajanus was on hand to begin recording a number of large Sibelius pieces. Kajanus’ years were numbered, but his powers not a single watt diminished. In this imposing figure Sibelius found no dutiful hack, quite the reverse, Kajanus was ever on the lookout for drama, soul, danger, the full measure of the music’s power, and with this intensity he blended elegance and a feeling for the long line. Now there are true Sibelians on podiums everywhere, turning out many wonderful performances, but nobody has surpassed Kajanus. Fascinating in his recording of the Second Symphony how the timpani-launched pizzicato opening of the second movement with its dogged and intermittently insistent up-and-down of eighth notes in the basses suggests a certain kinship with the meteorologically dire opening of Wagner’s Die Walkuere. I think it’s Kajanus’ brisk “deciso” here that fosters the connection. I would also salute our canny Finn in the finale of the Second for being careful not to empty the tank of jubilation too soon, he takes a spirited but mellow view of all the thump and circumstance.

How Kajanus parses the opening elements of the second symphony’s first movement calls into fascinating play the eternally ambiguous dialogue between printed score and effective interpretation. First we have the strings with their shudder of repeated quarter notes trapped almost in a mellifluous wash of syncopation and Kajanus elects a faster allegretto than many of his colleagues, capturing brilliantly a nervousness that seems absolutely built into the music . . . except that, for all Kajanus’ powers of persuasion, can we truly say built in? John Barbirolli at a slower tempo – some would say Kajanus had skipped to allegro — finds charming song and dance in a Manchester recording. And an anti-agitato Sir Thomas Beecham with the BBC Symphony a keen nostalgia.

Did Beecham and Sibelius talk about this over their beloved cigars? I doubt it. At all events Kajanus’ nervoso opening prepares the dramatic contrast he has in store for us next, a very perky delivery of the little tune emerging in oboes and clarinets at the ninth bar which will walk its merry way at bar 13 right into a rich expansion of tempo and a distinctly ominous crescendo in horns craftily waiting at the pass with their long plummy notes. Sibelius writes espressivo here, that most pregnant of notational directives, and unlike a number of his colleagues Kajanus sees it as a distinct signal for broadening — in the cause of Darkness! — a tempo which up to now has been brisk. Brisk, one can say with some surety, so it could be challenged at measure 13.

Those interested in the connection between composer and devoted interpreter should also be advised that Kajanus in his recording of Sibelius’ First Symphony is not a slavish observer of the post-comma part of the composer’s marking at the outset of the second movement: andante, ma non troppo lento. Yes, conductors must not submit to slavery without due consideration. Well, as the composer Ned Rorem that naughty but clear-thinking diarist reminds all of us who might lapse into linearity, “there are as many right ways to play any piece as there are gifted players.”