No record company has recorded as much Sibelius as BIS.
His works have been a constant since the launch of the label
in the days of the LP when Neeme Järvi was the mainstay rather
than Vänskä. Gradually the Järvi recordings have been supplanted
by Vänskä although this is not invariably to the composer’s
For BIS and Robert von Bahr a major change came in the
early 1990s with the concordat reached with the Sibelius
family. This allowed BIS to set down variant versions of
many works (violin concerto, symphony 5 and The Oceanides)
as well as others never previously recorded. This disc could
never have existed without that statement of confidence in
BIS's ability to present the music with excellence and fidelity.
The present disc - number 58 in the Edition - is a fascinating
assemblage of works that are at least unusual and sometimes
rare. It will quite properly find a ready market among the
world’s many Sibelians. It follows a number of BIS’s choral
and orchestral discs including Song of the Earth (BIS-CD-1365)
and Snöfrid (BIS-CD-1265). The mix is engaging with
early works jostling late and mid. Choral works nudge orchestral
and songs with orchestra.
The Overture and Scène de ballet are
both from 1891. They were written in Vienna under the reins
of two teachers, Fuchs and Goldmark. They were intended as
the first two movements of a symphony. If it had come to
fruition it would have been comparable with Goldmark’s Rustic
Wedding - more of a symphonic suite than a completely
resolved symphony. The Overture ends in Lisztian grandeur
just tipping over into bombast. At the start and at other
stages it is reminiscent of the pregnant tension of En
Saga and the Karelia music. At 2.00 we get pre-echoes
of the first Lemminkainen legend and of Kullervo at
5.12 onwards. In a decade and a half the uproar at the start
of the Scène de Ballet would be transformed into something
even more elementally apostrophising: the brassy rasping
shudders at the start of Nightride and Sunrise. There
are castanets and a much more generalised Iberian quality
in Scène de Ballet and in the captivating Impromptu.
This links with the Andante Festivo once available
only in an EMI recording made in the 1950s by Beecham and
in the 1960s by Alexander Gibson; the latter with the then
SNO. These two works are Sibelius’s first surviving orchestral
In 1892 while still in Vienna Sibelius’s fascination
with the Kalevala deepened. The result was the white hot Kullervo in
which his inspiration and invention were touched off in a
vital five movement symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra.
Quite why Sibelius became dissatisfied with it I could never
work out but that is exactly what happened. There were a
handful of performances but after that the composer forbade
any more. It was next performed shortly after his death.
Its first commercial recording was the one made by Paavo
Berglund for EMI in 1971. In the composer’s last year on
earth he made an arrangement of the colossal, emphatic and
stormily dramatic Kullervo’s Lament from the
end of the third movement. The arrangement is pretty faithful
to the original. The composer however writes a short coda
to give a roundedly vehement concert ending to this very
brief chip off the Kullervo block. The arrangement
was done for Kim Borg (bass-baritone) who sang it at the
Sibelius Week in June 1957 having appeared as soloist in
the premiere of Atterberg’s Ninth Symphony Visionaria in
February of that year. Here soloist Jyrki Korhonen is rather
outfaced by the massive hammer-blows of the orchestra as
it thunders out Kullervo’s tragedy. If Jyrki Korhonen is
swamped by the orchestra it is perhaps less to do with any
want of power and more with the balance in previous recordings
unnaturally favouring the singer.
After the Thor hammer-blows of the Kullervon Valitus we
come to Sibelius cast in troubadour role in Serenade.
The sweet pianissimo rustle of the violin and the Tchaikovskian
whisper-quiet pizzicato introduce us to Tommi Hakala's butter-scotch
voice. The orchestral rustle was later to evolve into the
gorgeous ambiguity of the trembling backdrop to Luonnotar.
The lighter Sibelius sometimes links with the lighter
Elgar. Elgar's irresistibly lilting Spanish Serenade (see
review on Dutton CDLX7148) has
a certain feathery delight about it and the same applies
to Sibelius 's plush caress
in Impromptu a work in much the same vein.
Both versions of the work include female chorus and both
lilt mellifluously. Try following Elgar's Spanish Serenade with
either version of Sibelius's Impromptu. The Sibelius
work is wonderfully gentle but these feminine qualities are
by no means exhaustive; at 1:01 there is a small rictus similar
to the harp goaded ‘explosions’ in The Bard and Luonnotar.
This disc anthologises the lighter yet masterly Sibelius
with the toughest and most awesome; not that boundaries are
that simplistically defined in Sibelius. The most forbiddingly
otherworldly, is Luonnotar, a work reflecting
the minimalist quintessence of mystical Nordic beauty. This
part tone poem-part scena is superbly sung. Vänskä ensures
that the orchestral tissue is given a steady pulse which
actually adds to the tension. Also BIS is unafraid of rendering
the strings at whisper quiet levels. Be warned, those crowning
climaxes delivered by Helen Juntunen may well rattle the
rafters. For those who voted for Söderström and Ashkenazy
(Decca) you will find this version a revelation. The singer
here has a steady and responsively potent voice. Hers is
youthful and pliant where Phyllis Bryn-Julson for Bernstein
was heavily operatic. Much the same applied to Gwyneth Jones
whose voice introduced me to the work on the EMI Dorati LP
of the tone poems. I still cherish the version conducted
by Berglund with the Bournemouth orchestra where the soprano
was Taru Valjakka. Her singing was pretty much ideal and
remains so though the Bournemouth EMI recording is now more
than a quarter century old. Also excellent and on the same
label is Mari-Anne Haggander with Jorma Panula conducting
(see review). Juntunen now joins this small elite club in
a work whose demands are of the cruellest. The world it inhabits
primeval stage of the Kalevala, the creation epic part of
the book. This ten minute concentrated epic inhabits the
realms of The Bard and the Fourth Symphony on
one hand and the icy cool lyricism of the Sixth Symphony
on the other. Juntunen has a ‘torquey’ voice apt for those
exposed sections where the singer must come in on some impossibly
high note and sustain it at pianissimo. The harp and the
rustlingly expectant strings show how Vänskä knew the idiom
from the inside. This almost constant troika-like ostinato
links with similar ‘gallop’ motifs in Nightride and Sunrise,
and Lemminkainen's Return. While I await the new Ondine
collection of Sibelius songs including Luonnotar from
with Sakari Oramo this BIS disc nudges the top of the recommendations
alongside Haggander and Valjakka. Interestingly there are
echoes of Luonnotar in Höstkvåll too.
I natten is another troubadour style song - this time for baritone
and orchestra. Once again a conspiratorial breathy tremble
initiates and continues throughout. It is not a mile away
from the whispered pent up tension of Stravinsky's The
Juntunen is in light-suffused voice for Höstkvåll (Autumn
Evening) which is a volatile scena for soprano and
string orchestra. The green sap of her voice projects a
far more feminine quality than the older Nilsson in the
classic Bokstedt version now available on Decca Eloquence
(Australia) (see review).
Ms Juntunen is with full orchestra for Hertig Magnus.
The rolling-turning strings at 0:55 recall the Second Symphony
but then turn lightly serenading again at 1:20.
Among the more serious middle period Sibelius is the
willowy slender Pan and Echo - termed
a Dance-Intermezzo. Like The Oceanides it is
linked with the world of classical antiquity rather than
Nordic lore. Interesting that a Sibelius champion like Granville
Bantock should also respond to the same culture as in his Cyprian
Goddess and Pagan symphonies. There is an obstreperous
Pan-led explosion at 2:38. Towards the end one catches suggestions
of the Third Symphony. Otherwise this is a typically cool
woodwind dominated genre piece.
Väinön Virsi is from 1926 and was Sibelius
's last cantata. It is often cheery and chipper - as at 1:30.
The antiphonal by-play
between the choir’s men and women adds many moments to savour
(e.g. at 2:30) across the left and right channels.. a match
for Maan virsi (Hymn of the earth), Jordens
sang (Song of the earth), and Oma Maa (My
native land). The orchestra may largely be of accompanimental
significance but it is superbly rendered and the bass drum
registers with wonderfully satisfying definition at 5:13.
As if to unnerve us the master adds some raw brassy whoops
towards the end and these come, shivering in splendour, from
the world of the Fourth Symphony.
Typically the explanatory notes by Andrew Barnett (no
relation) are full. The sung texts are printed alongside
translations into English.
A must-buy for all Sibelians.