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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
CD1
Luonnotar Op. 70 (1913) [9.26]
En Saga Op. 9 (1901) [18.48]
Nightride and Sunrise Op. 55 (1907) [15.15]
The Oceanides Op. 73 (1914) [10.11]
King Christian II suite Op. 27 (1898) [20.40]
CD2
Karelia Overture and Suite Op. 10 (1893) [7.25 + 14.35]
Swan of Tuonela Op. 22 No. 2 (1893) [9.01]
Finlandia Op. 26 (1900) [8.48]
Pohjola's Daughter Op. 49 (1906) [12.33]
The Bard Op. 64 (1913) [7.42]
Festivo Op. 25 No. 3 (1911) [7.04]
The First Kiss Op. 37 No. 1 [2.19]
Spring is Flying Op. 13 No. 4 [1.56]
The tryst Op. 37 No. 5 [3.30]
Black Roses Op. 36 No. 1 [2.12]
Dame Gwyneth Jones (sop) (Op. 70)
London Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti (Opp. 70, 9, 55, 73)
Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Gibson (Opp. 27, 10, 64, 25)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent (Op.11, 22, 26)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent (Op.49)
Siv Wennberg (sop); Geoffrey Parsons (piano) (Opp. 37, 13, 36)
rec. Aug 1958, Kingsway Hall (Op. 49); Nov 1961, Großer Musikvereinsaal, Wien (Opp. 11, 22, 26); Studio 1 Abbey Road London, Aug 1966 (Opp. 10, 25, 27, 64); June 1969 (Opp. 55, 73); Aug 1969 (Op. 9); June, July 1973 (songs); Wembley Town Hall, London, Feb 1969 (Op. 70). ADD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 7243 5 85785 2 2 [76:49 + 77:52]


The theme here, apart from gap-filling British recordings not previously or at least rarely issued on CD, is 1960s Sibelius.

The works are from throughout Sibelius's career. The early years (En Saga, Karelia, Finlandia) to mid-life maturity and later (Pohjola's Daughter, Nightride and Oceanides, The Bard, Luonnotar).

Sibelius's reputation dipped for ten years after his death. These recordings helped its rehabilitation on LP. For years these tracks were in many cases the only or only easily accessible representation of particular works. The two Doráti LPs from which much of CD1 was drawn were uniquely valuable in their coverage of Luonnotar, Nightride and Oceanides.

If you look at the recording dates most were made during the second decade after the death of Sibelius. Only the Sargent recordings were made earlier with Pohjola's Daughter recorded with the BBCSO the year after Sibelius's death and the Sargent Vienna sessions three years after that.

There is another strand too and that is the non-symphonic Sibelius. He is represented here by tone poems, incidental music and songs. I would hesitate to call any of them miniatures in any diminutive sense for their essence is epic. If their time-frame is brief their manner and material is often symphonic and momentous.

The versions of the tone poems by Antal Doráti (1906-88) are well worth having even if they are on the measured side (look at the sampled timing comparisons at the end of this review) ... perhaps especially because they are on the measured side.

Both Luonnotar and The Bard are among Sibelius’s most gnomic and beautiful creations. Both are included. Luonnotar is one of the four Doráti-conducted tone poems and in 1969 was an extraordinarily rare item. It is an enigmatic work for soprano and orchestra - spare yet potently allusive. The words are from ‘The Kalevala’ and deal with the Finnish Creation epic. The work is sung with operatic splendour by Dame Gwyneth Jones (b. 1936), CBE 1976, DBE 1986. Jones takes this technically punishing work well within her stride. She is aided by the recording made at Abbey Road by Ronald Kinloch Anderson who unflinchingly caught the voice in full flight. The operatic technique is well in evidence in the stratospherically high note hit at a breathtaking ppp at 4.40 then at fff at 2.30 and at 5.28. This contrasts with the barely audible ‘troika’ ostinato that launches the piece and recurs throughout. That conspiratorial ‘gallop’ is distantly related to the ostinato in Nightride and Sunrise. The orchestral contribution is also superb. Listen to the ‘landslide’ arpeggio delivered by the harps (two surely?). Doráti permits the brass a fearsome ‘rip’ at 5.24. At the very end there is a lovely fade into the silent mystery out of which the ‘troika’ came.

I am not sure what the Finns would say about Jones’ Finnish but she sounds utterly convincing. I wonder who coached her in the Finnish language. The same can be said of Bernstein’s Phyllis Bryn-Julsonon Sony. Hearing Jones in this makes me wonder and wish that Jones could have sung The Cradle Song from Holbrooke's opera Bronwen part of The Cauldron of Annwn trilogy. The ‘cauldron’ is the Welsh equivalent of the Kalevala's ‘sampo’. The ‘Mabinogion’ is the Welsh equivalent of the Kalevala.

A few words about Dame Gwyneth. She was born to a musical family in Pontnewynydd, Torfaen, Monmouthshire, S.E. Wales in 1937. She sang regularly throughout her teens both at school and while working as a secretary at the Pontypool foundry, winning a formidable number of prizes at Eisteddfodau. She won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, and went on to study first in Siena and later in Zurich, which ultimately she was to make her home. Her first professional work was in Zurich as a mezzo-soprano in 1962. She made her debut as a soprano at Welsh National Opera, performing Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth in the following year. So far as record collectors are concerned some may well recall her Strauss Die Ägyptische Helena in which she sang the role of Helena alongside the young Barbara Hendricks together with Matti Kastu and Willard White. Again the conductor was Doráti.

The words for Luonnotar are not included in this super-bargain price set. You can find them at:-

http://209.16.199.17/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=16842

and with English translation at

http://www.symphonypromusica.org/notes/9211.html#Luonnotar

or

http://www.minnesotaorchestra.org/season/event_detail.cfm?id_event=84976556#

and click programme notes on left-hand side - look carefully.

There is a healthily long pause before En Saga shivers into life. This performance is not as tense as the wartime Berlin Furtwängler but it is very good; certainly as good as Horst Stein's significantly quicker classic version on Decca. Doráti has a good feeling for the romantic sway and irresistible macabre propulsion of the piece. He builds the tension into a huge motorically rotating whirlwind. One passing demerit by comparison with the now thirty year old Stein is that Doráti’s horns are distanced in way that they are not for Stein’s Suisse Romande. Decca and Stein, at work three or four years later in Geneva's Victoria Hall, manage a more dramatic although probably less realistic effect overall. However, recording is all about the creation of illusion.

Nightride and Sunrise is in outstanding analogue sound. Doráti gives the piece a monumental spring and tread. There are times when the effect is like a slow-motion dream of horses’ hooves galloping (try 7.26). This really is a fine piece with its mezza voce brass protests and strange Nordic chorale reaching back to Lemminkainen's adventures on Saari. Details float out to caress the listener’s attention. There is a welling up of great power in the final three minutes.

The Oceanides is the chilliest of these four very different tone poems. This is an affectionate Mediterranean portrait from Greek mythology. Listen to those gorgeous harp ‘swashes’ (3.28) and to the warm swimmer encountering the shiver of cold currents (7.16). Who has done this as well as at 6.13 onwards. There is an epic blast to the brass. The gale rips spindrift from the wave-crests in music echoing with what could have been allusions to the finale of Moeran's symphony, to the peak of Bax’s Tintagel and to Debussy’s La Mer at 8.23 onwards.

By the way who were the principals of the LSO for these recordings? Can anyone assist by naming them?

The King Christian II music shows the SNO in vivid form. Listen to the gripping and glistening glow on the strings in Nocturne and the impudence of the woodwind in the Musette. Gibson is a superb Sibelian and no mistake. He was later to record Sibelius extensively with RCA and then with Chandos. Earlier he had recorded symphonies 3 and 6 for Saga. His pacing here is unerring and always instinct with life as the tightly rapped out rhythmic exuberance of the Ballade shows. This carries over into the Karelia Overture with its passim references to Kullervo at 1.17. Recording quality is unapologetically direct and honest. Listen out for the creak of the leader's chair.

Then comes a change of locale, orchestra and conductor. Sargent conducts not only the BBC Symphony Orchestra but also the VPO, an orchestra five years later to record the symphonies for Decca with Lorin Maazel. Sargent's Karelia Suite with the Vienna Phil is quick; in the case of the Intermezzo - very quick. This is about as fast as it could go - prove me wrong. The music would not have been unfamiliar to the orchestra: Sibelius was, after all, the most played non-German composer in Germany and Austria in the 1930 and 1940s. While, strangely enough, the strings lack the glamour of the SNO the woodwind register as never before in the jollity of the alla marcia even if the final pay-off sounds more like Walton than Sibelius.

Sargent's Swan is rather somnolent, the tension having sprung loose somehow. His Finlandia, while strongly aggressive, is nowhere near as dramatically 'black' as Barbirolli's version with the Hallé (EMI box) or Stein's with the Suisse Romande. His Pohjola's Daughter with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is the oldest recording here, made only a year after Sibelius's death. There is lovely 'flighted' playing from cor anglais, flute and oboe. Peter Andry and Robert Gooch made this an all-round superb sounding event which still has a place alongside the exemplary Pohjolas of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. When Sargent was on-song he was a force to be reckoned with even if his relationship with orchestras was tempestuous. The melody has been projected with better weight (9.20) in other versions but this still remains extremely impressive.

Back to Gibson. His The Bard is thoughtful - cousin to Luonnotar in its sparely furnished yet gorgeous sound throughout. Where Luonnotar has a soprano solo; The Bard has a harp. At 1.55 Gibson projects the ictus, timely release and recapture of tension. The harp sounds quite closely balanced. Festivo has taut Karelian jollity as well as a Hispanic twist - castanets and all. There is hiss a\s there is in all of these recordings but it is not a major issue.

The four Sibelius songs are miniature music dramas. There are three songs to poems by Johan Ludvig Runeberg and one by Ernst Josephson. The triumphant operatic tone of the Siv Wennberg is largely free of vibrato. Wennberg was born on 18 September 1944 at Timrå, Medelpad. Her Decca recording of Wagner’s Rienzi, made with René Kollo promised and delivered great things but I do not recall any other recordings by her; a pity. The EMI recording of these songs expands confidently to accommodate Wennberg’s great voice and does so without a tremor. The Tryst has an undeniably Tchaikovskian flavour (think of Onegin's Tatiana) and with its infusion of fearful macabre it also touches on Erlkönig.

The texts of the songs are not given but you can find these on the internet (courtesy of Emily Ezust) with translations into English:-

Svarta rosor in Swedish with English and French translations

Den första kyssen

The Tryst also known as Flickan kom från sin älsklings möte

The affectionate yet tightly informative notes for this set are by Malcolm Macdonald. They are compact and get the message across. The sections on En Saga, Karelia and King Christian II are freshly interesting, the latter taking the trouble to give us a succinct summary of the tragic plot - not something I have seen before.

Budding Sibelians must have this outstanding set not only for its nostalgic backward glances but as a reminder of some all-time great Sibelius interpretations from Doráti, Gibson and Wennberg. Even more than the Groves Gemini set this is a must-buy.

Rob Barnett

 
TABLE OF COMPARATIVE TIMINGS

En Saga

Ashkenazy 19:42
Boult 17:36
Doráti 18:48
Sinaisky 17:45
Stein 16:15
Luonnotar

Bryn-Julson/Bernstein 8:08
Jogeva/Sinaisky 8:17
Jones/Doráti 9:26
Kringelborn/Järvi 9:18
Söderström/Ashkenazy 9:12
Valjakka/Berglund 9:53
Nightride and Sunrise

Boult 14:02
Doráti 15:15
Jarvi 14:41
Sinaisky 14:15
Stein 14:24
Oceanides

Boult 9:06
Doráti 10:11
Sinaisky 9:04
Pohjola’s Daughter

Berglund 13:50
Bernstein 12:40
Boult 13:33
Sargent 12:33
Sinaisky 13:02
Stein 13:07



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