Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo-soprano)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Petr Popelka
rec. 2021, NRK Concert Hall, Oslo
Swedish & Finnish texts & English translation
LAWO LWC1239 
Norwegian mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland has tended to specialise in the baroque and early Romantic, but she also recorded and performed what we might call a lot of “Nordic” repertoire and has here turned her attention to eighteen of Sibelius’ finest orchestral songs, brushing up her Swedish and Finnish pronunciation for that explicit purpose. (In fact, only two here are in Finnish; Sibelius mostly set Swedish texts as, in common with many of the educated classes of his day, he was not entirely fluent in his national tongue.) Sibelius wrote more than a hundred songs, virtually all of which were originally for piano accompaniment but they lend themselves to orchestration; some of them he orchestrated himself and several were made by his son-in-law, the conductor Jussi Jalas.
The opening song, “Höstkväll” (Autumn Evening – oddly, the song titles are not translated in the booklet, so I give them below), is arresting; even if you do not look at the words you will instantly feel plunged into a wild, barren, windswept waste by the singer’s sustained top G-flat over the haunting minor chord. The variety of chilling instrumental effects Sibelius conjures up to sustain the ghostly atmosphere is absolutely remarkable. Kielland has just the right voice to complement that unique orchestration: pure, without being piercing, an attractively fast, light vibrato – nary a hint of wobble –and as clean, clear and cool as the landscape so familiar to the composer. Even her slightly thin top notes suit the stark nature of the music.
The main themes of these songs are hyper-Romantic: loneliness, lament, grief, death and desolation. They were earlier works, written around the turn of the century and occasionally one senses the composer’s personal involvement in them, such as in “Sov in!” (Just sleep!), set by a child’s sickbed; he lost his youngest daughter in February 1900.
The intensity of both words and music might require the listener to adopt a programme of staggered listening, but four of the Op. 17 songs, which are centrally placed within the programme, provide some relief from the prevailing gloom: we hear of love, birdsong and the beauty of nature, and the change of gear to Finnish in “Illalle” (To the Evening) and “Lastu lainehilla” (Woodchip on the waves) brings a folksy charm to proceedings. Even these cheerier songs, however, are tinged with sadness, and the long, wordless, melismatic passages of “En slända” (Dragonfly) engender an oddly melancholy atmosphere.
The Opp. 36 & 37 songs default to darker themes. “Svarta rosor” (Black roses) is probably the best known of the songs here: “For grief has roses black as night”; and “Säv, säv, susa” (Reed, reed, whisper) briefly adumbrates a tragic tale; “Demanten på marssnön” (Diamond in the March Snow) treats of the transience of earthly beauty, and so on. The prominence of the harp in Sibelius’ orchestration reinforces the mythical or legendary allusions in the poem set; “Soluppgång” (Sunrise) narrates a chivalric tale in three stanzas and “Var det en dröm?” (Was it a dream?) rises to a surprisingly hefty, densely scored climax, almost redolent of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. The concluding song is a typically mournful tale of betrayal; it, too, is heavily scored and operatic, even though Sibelius ventured but once into that genre - and that unsuccessfully - with the short, one-Act The Maiden in the Tower.
Apart from the orchestral inventiveness on display here, it must be said that the songs are in themselves unfailingly melodic and easily assimilated. Kudos to the Czech conductor Petr Popelka, the soloists and the ensemble of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra for effortlessly encompassing the wide range of moods, textures and the sonorities here, from the lush to the spare.
This is not a long disc – nor is the total playing time provided, so I have done so above – but this recital will open up a new world for many a Sibelius enthusiast unfamiliar with these lovely songs.
5 Laulut, Op. 38 (1903-04):
No. 1. Höstkväll (Autumn Evening)
No. 2. På verandan vid havet (On the veranda by the sea)
No. 3. I natten (In the night)
7 Songs, Op. 17 (1891-1904):
No. 1. Se'n har jag ej frågat mera (I have since asked no more) (Orchestrated by Jean Sibelius)
No. 2. Sov in! (Just sleep!) (Orchestrated by Ernest Pingoud)
No. 3. Fågellek (Birdsong) (Orchestrated by Ernest Pingoud)
No. 5. En slända (Dragonfly) (Orchestrated by Jussi Jalas)
No. 6. Illalle (To the evening) (Orchestrated by Jussi Jalas)
No. 7. Lastu lainehilla (Woodchip on the waves) (Orchestrated by Jussi Jalas)
6 Songs, Op. 36 (1899-1900):
No. 1. Svarta rosor (Black roses) (Orchestrated by Simon Parmet)
No. 2. Men min fågel märks dock icke (But my bird is not yet to be seen) (Orchestrated by Colin Matthews)
No. 4. Säv, säv, susa (Reed, reed, whisper) (Orchestrated by Kim Borg)
No. 5. Marssnön (March Snow) (Orchestrated by Jussi Jalas)
No. 6. Demanten på marssnön (Diamond in the March Snow) (Orchestrated by Jean Sibelius)
Op. 37 (1900-1902):
No. 1. Den första kyssen (First Kiss) (Orchestrated by Ivar Hellmann)
No. 3. Soluppgång (Sunrise) (Orchestrated by Jean Sibelius)
No. 4. Var det en dröm? (Was it a dream?) (Orchestrated by Jussi Jalas)
No. 5. Flickan kom från sin älsklings mote (The girl came from meeting her lover) (Orchestrated by Ernest Pingoud)
Published: November 9, 2022