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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
7 Songs, op. 13, 6 Songs, op. 50, 6 Songs, op. 90, Skogsrået, Den judiska flickans sång (from Belshazzarís Feast), Likhet, En visa, Serenade, Tanken*
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Bengt Forsberg (piano), * with Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
Rec. April 5th-6th 1994 and March 30th-31st 1995, Musikaliska Akademien, Stockholm, Sweden
BIS-CD-300757 [67:14]

If the idea of Sibelius songs seems to conjure up images of attenuated, magical atmospheres and snow-clad beauty, you will be brought up short by the drama and passion of the op. 13 songs, Sibeliusís first published collection (1892). This mood continues for much of the disc, for the performers believe in living dangerously and present a Sibelius closer to expressionism than to impressionism. Itís a pretty enthralling experience.

Some time ago I was loud in my praise of Katerina Karnéusís Hyperion selection of Sibeliusís songs, which also includes op. 50 and two of the op. 13 pieces. So am I changing allegiance? No, after careful comparison I find the two complementary and would not part with either. They both have equally beautiful voices, but, although they are both mezzos, they are quite different; von Otterís voice is like a thread of pure gold while that of Karnéus is much darker with a rich velvety timbre. Both find a manner of interpretation suited to their vocal characteristics. Karnéus adopts a more bel canto style (while not unappreciative of the words). She and her rich-toned pianist emphasise the Straussian warmth of the writing. In Lenzgesang, the first of the op. 50 set, she opts for a key a tone above von Otter, allowing her voice to ring out thrillingly. Von Otterís lower key allows her to enjoy a nice descent to the chest voice at "erwacht" at the end of the 4th line, but above all it allows her a more relaxed, almost conversational delivery which uncovers much detail. Itís a more word oriented approach and more recently, in her Offenbach recital, I felt she was getting mannered, but not here.

Interestingly, in "Spring flies speedily", from the op. 13 songs, it is von Otter who adopts the higher key, giving what almost seems a soprano interpretation, with a sumptuous high G, while Karnéus, a minor third lower, finds a dark melancholy in the piece. In four of the songs they both choose the same key, yet the essential difference of approach remains.

Each has the right pianist. Bengt Forsberg aims to get the maximum of colouristic gradation from Sibeliusís often remarkable accompaniments, which range from extreme spareness to extreme elaboration, though in "Nordern", the first of the op. 90 songs, he tries to get too much out of the chordal accompaniment and nearly drowns the singer. Julius Drake, for Karnéus, produces a consistent warmth of tone.

If you want to have just one disc of Sibelius songs, then perhaps the Karnéus offers the most balanced programme. The von Otter record is part of Bisís complete Sibelius project (which includes another CD by von Otter) so does not intend to offer an overall view of his song production, though the programme is varied and interesting. But, if you think you want just one disc of Sibelius songs, either of these is likely to convince you that one is not enough, so why not get both?

Christopher Howell

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