Because his symphonies
are so wonderful, Sibeliusís vocal music
is often overlooked. Yet in many ways
it is integral to his development as
No serious Sibelius
collection should be without Luonnotar,
as it plays a pivotal role in his creative
development. After completing the groundbreaking
Fourth Symphony, Sibelius intuited that
he was approaching uncharted waters
musically, yet also that the new music
of Schoenberg and Stravinsky was alien
to him. As so often in a mood of self-doubt,
he turned to the ancient folk wisdom
of the Kalevala for inspiration.
Luonnotar was the primeval
goddess, who floated alone in the universe
before the world was created "in
a solitude of ether". Descending
to earth she swam in an endless sea,
whipped about by storms. Out of the
void a duck appears, looking for shelter
in the endless seas. Taking pity, Luonnotar
lets it land on her knee. When its eggs
hatch they explode, the whites creating
the moon, the yolk sunlight, the mottled
bits the stars. The ancient myth is
powerfully symbolic, a paradigm, too,
of what confronts the creative artist.
Already in Luonnotar, the transcendent
genius of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies
can be detected. The following year
Sibelius was to write Aallottaret,
the "Spirit of the Seas" also
known as The Oceanides.
Yet Luonnotar hasnít
received quite the attention it deserves.
Written as a showpiece for Aino Ackté
in 1913, its strange primeval sound-worlds
would have seemed as shocking as The
Rite of Spring. Moreover, it is
fiendishly difficult to perform technically.
For years the only recording was by
Elisabeth Söderström. Soile
Isokoski, however, has performed it
so many times in recital that she has
made it her trademark. This version,
by Ondine, surpasses her previous recording
with Neeme Järvi, and is, without
doubt, the version to get, for Isokoski
is the supreme exponent of this powerful,
Vocally, the piece
is a tour de force. It demands
an unusually wide and well controlled
tessitura. There are leaps and drops
of almost an octave within a single
word. When Luonnotar calls out for help,
her words are scored like strange, sudden
swoops of unworldly sounds supposed
to resound across the eternal emptiness.
While Söderström sings correctly,
she doesnít engage emotionally and is
somewhat formal and mannered. This is
anguished, passionate music, and it
needs the intensity Isokoski brings.
Singing over the cataclysmic orchestral
climax that builds up from "Tuuli
kaatavi, tuuli kaatavi", Isokoski
rides on the crest of the tsunami of
Sibeliusís wall of sound. Yet when the
miracle happens, and the skies are created,
her voice blooms with delicious rapture.
The way she savours each word, winding
it round her tongue when needed, is
Segerstam is another
Luonnotar devotee, as are the
Helsinki Philharmonic, and theyíve performed
with Isokoski often enough to complement
each other. They all understand the
spirit of the Kalevala, and bring to
their playing a searing intensity. They
appreciate that the piece conveys the
power of ancient, shamanistic incantation.
It is as if by recreating by sound they
are performing a ritual to release a
wild but spectacular force of nature.
The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre,
which shaped the runes and gave them
character. Sibelius does not replicate
the metre but his phrases follow a peculiar,
rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic
chant, itself uncommonly close to heart
and breathing rhythms. Yet Saraste and
his players are also immersed in new
music. They appreciate just how modern
and original Luonnotar is, building
primal energy in the large blocks of
sound, the glorious sparkling passages
on harp highlighting colour against
the darker timbres. Isokoskiís dramatic,
expressionistic "Ei! Ei!"
sounds at once primeval and utterly
be the attraction on this recording,
but the rest of it is important too.
Sibeliusís songs are exceptionally beautiful,
making him one of the greatest Lieder
composers. Indeed, vocal music meant
so much to him that understanding his
symphonies and tone poems is enhanced
by appreciating the songs and choral
work. Nine of the songs in this collection
are Sibeliusís own orchestrations. Höstkväll
is particularly worth studying as the
orchestration here is closer to the
tone poems than to the piano accompaniment.
The massed string crescendi are specially
moving. Sibelius respected the predominance
of the vocal line, leaving it almost
unaccompanied, the orchestrations setting
rather than leading. They are highly
dramatic, reflecting Sibeliusís fascination
with music for the theatre. The famous
På veranden vid havet havet
is almost operatic, with echoes of the
shepherdís horn from Tristan,
perhaps. This suits Isokoskiís background
as an opera specialist, and she makes
them exquisitely convincing as alternatives
to the piano songs. Maybe one day, Ondine
will record more of Sibeliusís music
Jussi Jalas, the composerís
student and son-in-law transcribed another
seven songs. His orchestrations thus
closely replicate Sibeliusís own style.
Kalutar is particularly delightful,
the orchestration transparent and carefree,
letting the singer carry the melody,
while discreetly building up atmosphere.
Someone at Ondine really knows how to
programme wisely. Kalutar is
placed here before Luonnotar,
so the sensitive listener can hear it
as a companion piece. Written shortly
after Luonnotar, it recapitulates
some of the same ideas, but in a more
lyrical mood, as befits the story of
an echo-nymph. His setting of En
slända manages to capture the
diaphanous fluttering of the dragonflyís
wings almost as well as in the piano
version. It is some feat with a large
This is an important
recording for anyone interested in Sibelius.
Isokoski is by far the finest exponent
of Sibeliusís vocal work, which she
has championed for many years. Indeed,
it was her version of Kullervo (also
with Segerstam) in 1994 that made me
realise what an exceptional singer she
was, long before I heard her divine
Mozart and Strauss. This new recording
surpasses all others, including Isokoskiís
earlier Luonnotar with Järvi.
This is magic Ė Ondine should be very
And Rob Barnett writes:-
I wish I had a better
handle on the number of Sibelius songs
with orchestra. I presume the Söderström/Krause
set on Decca (ADD 476 17259, 1985) is
complete but that's a collection of
songs with piano. How many of
these exist with orchestra and how many
of those orchestrations are Sibelius
originals? Does anyone have a list?
There are nineteen
songs here, eighteen if we discount
Luonnotar which is a remarkable
hybrid of tone poem, fabulous tessitura
and epic scena. Seven of the nineteen
are arranged by the composer's son-in-law,
the conductor Jussi Jalas (1908-1985).
There's one each by Nils-Eric Fougstedt
(1910-1961, conductor and composer),
one by master-composer Ernest Pingoud
(1887-1942) and another by Ivar Hellman
(1891-1994). The remaining nine are
presumably Sibelius originals.
has a fast-lapping soft ostinato over
which the vocal line floats. Woodwind
solos wind in the gentlest descant of
the type we know from The Wood Nymph
and the incidental music for The
Tempest. There are some tremulous
dramatic touches too, as at 1:46, which
link with Luonnotar.
superbly done and what an otherworldly
piece this is - minimalistic, understated,
dramatic, terse in the manner of the
Fourth Symphony and The Bard,
as mysterious and gnomic as Martinu's
Epic of Gilgamesh (another creation
epic) yet with an operatic mastery.
This scena-tone poem is sui generis
and with its tense impulse, exciting
propulsion, expansive theme and cruel
tessitura it has had few failures among
recordings. Among the best are this
one as well as the 1970s effort by the
even more damsel-toned Taru Valjakka
for Berglund. Mari-Anne Haggänder
is also superb on Bis CD270 from the
late 1980s. That Bis disc also includes
a less generous collection of the songs
with orchestra but it is excellent as
also is the Grieg-Sibelius blend on
Warner 8573 80243-2 sung by Karita Mattila
with the CBSO and Sakari Oramo.
Many of the orchestrations
date from years after the particular
song was first written for voice and
piano; many the product of the so-called
'silence from Jarvenpaa' from circa
1921 until Sibelius's death in 1958.
They were variously inspired by the
artistry of Aino Ackté and Aulikki
Rautawaara in the 1930s. Are there sufficient
78s of these and other singers' Sibelius
to make a useful collection of historical
Sibelius song recordings with orchestra?
This would be a nice project for Mark Obert-Thorn.
five of the nineteen including Luonnotar
are settings in Finnish of Finnish
poems. The other four are Kaiutar;
Illalle; Lastu lainehilla,
and Souda souda sinisorsa. The
rest are settings in Swedish with the
six of these to poems by J.L. Runeberg.
The sung texts are conveniently printed
side by side with English translation
in the booklet.
Ondine secure a toweringly
big sound necessary to these songs which
encompass everything from confiding
intimacy to operatic climaxes - sometimes
in the same song.
I still have hopes
for a complete edition of Sibelius's
orchestral songs. Is anyone out there
I reviewed this disc
on a standard CD player. It is however
a dual format disc with both full SACD
and standard CD capability.
This is a glorious
disc that will delight lovers of Scandinavian
song as well as Sibelians everywhere.