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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Snöfrid Op. 29 (1900) [14:15]
Overture in A minor JS144 (1902) [9:13]
Coronation Cantata JS104 (1896) [18:37]
Rakastava Op. 14 (1891-1912) [12:18]
Oma Maa Op. 92 (1918) [13:26]
Andante Festivo JS34b (1922, 1938) [5:10]
Stina Ekblad (narrator) (Snöfrid)
Jubilate Choir (Snöfrid; Coronation; Oma)
Jaakko Kuusisto (violin); Ilkka Pälli (cello) (Rakastava)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Rec. April 2001; Jan 2002; May 2002; Jan 2003; Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland. DDD
BIS BIS-CD-1265 [74:48]


This is volume 54 in Bis’s complete Sibelius Edition. It mixes three orchestral pieces (one of them, the Overture, not previously recorded) with three choral pieces (again one of them receiving its first commercial recording). Those collecting the complete edition will already have snapped this up. What about the rest of us?

For the devoted Sibelian the disc is a necessary acquisition for the Overture and the Coronation Cantata.

Oma Maa or Our Native Land, Op. 92 has been recorded before. It was issued as coupling with Berglund’s second Kullervo on HMV digital EX270336-3 (two LPs) and on cassette EX270336-5. It was written in 1918 between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Its immediately accessible burnished choral style appealed to then contemporary nationalistic currents. Then there is Paavo Järvi’s 2002 version on Virgin Classics 7243 5 45589 2 4 which also includes Snöfrid.

Järvi's Oma Maa is quicker than Vänskä's Bis version. He takes 11:55; Vänskä 13:26; Berglund (Helsinki Academic Choral Society) 12:13. This nostalgic piece blossoms warmly and slowly. It is impassioned, noble, idealistic and includes echoes of the Third Symphony. Unlike Snöfrid, rough-hewn legendary gestures are not part of the picture. Like parts of Snöfrid a certain idyllic ecstasy, typically carried by the choir, is in evidence. Vänskä's Oma Maa takes its time to burgeon and this suits the work. If you are impatient of this sort of material then you will prefer the Järvi. Järvi also has the benefit of a girls' choir of impeccably honeyed purity. Vänskä's women's choir sounds more mature - golden rather than silvered. I had hoped to compare the Berglund version but when I got to CD4 in the EMI Classics set (7243 5 74485 2 9) I found, not the declared Oma Maa and Tulen Synty, but Finlandia, Tapiola and Oceanides. Am I the only one to discover this?

Järvi's Snöfrid runs to 11:23 against Vänskä's 14:15. It is an earlyish work setting words by Viktor Rydberg - a poet whose words Sibelius also set as songs - see my recent review of the complete Sibelius songs (Krause, Söderström, Ashkenazy). Its galloping early pages recall the language of the Second Symphony. It is an unusual piece with two turbulently majestic and sometimes idyllic (11:43) choral sections framing an episode in which a female narrator speaks as the heroine Snöfrid. The orchestral fabric behind the closely-recorded voice is minimal (a soft dark breathing pulse from the brass) similar in approach to much of the instrumental underpinning in Luonnotar. Stina Ekblad, in her native language, sounds more mature than Järvi's Sofia Joons. Estonian Joons, on the other hand, is more girlish - more the fearless maiden of the waves. On balance I would favour the more expansive Vänskä whose brass players rasp and growl with just that bit more ‘grunt’. Both recordings give a warmly vibrant account of this rare piece.

The Overture in A minor is strange with a gently rolling trumpet fanfares followed by some chuckling woodwind and a good-hearted atmosphere typical of ‘Third Symphony meets Karelia’. The slowly turning fanfares, darkened and shadowed, bring the work to an end. This was conducted by the composer at the Helsinki Orchestral Society concert on 8 March 1902; the same concert at which he conducted the premiere of the Second Symphony.

The Cantata for the Coronation of Nicholas II is a dutifully produced work. Neither the writer Paavo Cajanader nor Sibelius had any time for the Russian Imperial family and its iron grip on Finland. Eighteen years later in the wake of the October Revolution and Finland’s liberation by the Whites Oma Maa with its impassioned Finnish nationalist sentiments was a closer expression of Sibelius's true feelings. Nevertheless Sibelius turned in an attractive work even if it does not shake the rafters of originality. There is plenty of smoothly reverent writing with fugal techniques in evidence and writing that favours Wagner.

Rakastava (also known as The Lover under which title it was recorded by Rozhdestvensky for Melodiya in the 1970s) in its version for strings is given an amber-toned and rough-grained reading. This is not the last word in refined string playing but the poignant nostalgia and the work’s ethereal polyphony (the words of Erik Tawastjerna) are beautifully caught. Hearing this work one is struck by its kinship with the Sixth Symphony although even that work does not delight in wan melancholia as much as this. The solo voices of Kuusisto (leader of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra) and Pälli coil outwards in modestly aspiring tendrils of melody (tr. 7). At the close the ground seems to be prepared for the Fourth Symphony.

The Andante Festivo sings out in opulence without the tremulous twilight of Rakastava. The theme has the serene and soulful magnificence of Finlandia and of the Russian Imperial Hymn. Interesting that this was the work Sibelius chose to polish up for the transatlantic broadcast he made on 1 January 1939 for the New York World's Fair. The very same Fair also drew premieres of Bax's Seventh Symphony and Bliss's Piano Concerto both conducted by that fine Sibelian, Adrian Boult. This piece is a warm bath of music purged of tragedy; devoid of violence. When Sibelius acceded to Olin Downes’ invitation to conduct a piece for the event he broke a period of ten years during which he had not conducted a single concert. The broadcast was recorded and the Andante Festivo has been issued by Ondine.

Like the Virgin version this disc is well documented with full notes by Andrew Barnett (no relation). Texts are given in the original Swedish and Finnish with side-by-side translations into English.

Overall this is a very attractive collection made up entirely of rarities. While the true esoterica (Overture and Cantata) are not earth-shattering events they are welcome novelties and we must hope for more ... and soon.

Rob Barnett

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