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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Legend of Jean Sibelius: Finlandia (1899) [8'28]; Karelia Suite (1893) [17'09]; Violin Concerto in D Minor (1903) [34'44]; The Oceanides (1914) [10'03]; Valse Triste (1903) [4'42]; Andante Festivo (1922) [5'10]; En Saga (1902) [18'03]; The Wood-Nymph (1894/5) [21'36]; Pohjola's Daughter (1906) [13'10]; Tapiola (1926) [17'22]; Porilaisten Marssi (1900) [2'14]
Raimo Laukka, (baritone), Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
recorded 1990-2003 and 2005, Finland. DDD
BIS-CD-1557/58 [76'28 + 78'58]


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 They were behind the complete Sibelius recordings, which runs to many volumes, and includes unpublished rarities.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 set.

Vänskä '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.

Because 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.

The 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 work.

Long 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.

Anne Ozorio


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