BIS is the label of choice for Scandinavian music and
for Sibelius in particular. They were behind the complete Sibelius
recordings, which runs to many volumes, and includes unpublished
rarities. Everything they issue is reliable, well chosen and
well produced. So too with Vänskä. Perhaps more than any other conductor he has
been associated with Sibelius. You cannot go wrong with this
's approach is vigorous and uncompromising. He hears Sibelius
as an innovator and free spirit. The Lahti Symphony may not
have the polish of, say, the Berlin Philharmonic or the London
Philharmonic, but their enthusiasm is infectious. Unlike his contemporaries, Saraste and Salonen, Vänskä
remained in Finland, building up the orchestra. The orchestra
itself is relatively young - founded in 1949 – and Vänskä has
conducted them since 1988. As a result, conductor and musicians
have a close relationship which shows in the responsiveness
of their playing.
Vänskä and his musicians are so intimately versed in Finnish
culture, they bring to Finlandia a real freshness, often
lost because the work is so familiar. For them it is no hackneyed
old chestnut. At the time it was written, Finland was ruled
by the Russians, who were attempting to suppress Finnish press
freedom. Sibelius may have been diffident about its success,
but the piece did spark the spirit of nationalism which led,
eventually, to the country's independence. Vänskä and his orchestra
play it with intense meaning, its rousing colours tinged with
a darker awareness of the decades of war and bloodshed that
were to follow. Other versions may be technically smoother,
but this works because it’s heartfelt. This inner sensitivity
also suffuses the Karelia Suite. Here we have the original
1893 scoring in which the middle movement has passages sung
by baritone. Later the three vocal verses were replaced by a
shorter solo for the cor anglais. “I biden mig väl” goes
the singer's refrain, “You wait for me then”. The later
version may be more elegant, but this gives an air of Sehnsucht.
This sense of pensive sorrow again surfaces in the Violin Concerto,
beautifully played by Leonidas Kavakos. Again, this is the longer
original scoring from 1903. Kavakos and Vänskä have recorded
both for BIS. Yet another original score is used for En Saga.
This version from 1893 is some 150 bars longer than the better
known 1902 revision. Although much less concise, it seems closer
to the raw adventurousness of Sibelius's work at that time,
notably his Kullervo, so wild and unusual that he kept
it private for the rest of his life. The Lahti Symphony's avoidance
of smooth perfection works well with this rough hewn immediacy.
Similarly, they bring out the rustic charm of The Wood Nymph
Op 15. This is a piece championed by BIS, Vänskä and the
Lahti Symphony, who made the premiere recording in 1996; previously
it had been unpublished.
high point is reached with Tapiola, when Sibelius was
at a peak of imaginative vitality, before falling prey to the
“silence” that would stifle him for the last decades of his
life. Vänskä's precise style adapts well to the more elaborate
orchestration, for he keeps the tempi and textures clearly defined.
His extensive experience with other Finnish modernists seems
to have sharpened his ear for what is innovative in Sibelius.
It is an immensely rewarding and original reading of a famous
term collectors will have most of this set already, but it is
a boon for everyone else (the vast majority), because it brings
together earlier and less well known material. The notes are
relatively simple, and seem aimed at listeners coming to Sibelius
for the first time. In any case, you can't “know” Sibelius without
what BIS, Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony have contributed.