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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Jordens Sang (Song of the Earth) Op. 93 (1919) [14:20]
Valpautettu Kuningatar (The Captive Queen) (1906) [9:16]
Two Chorales: Herr du bist ein fels (1889) [1:41]; Herr erzige uns deine Gnade (1889) [3:05]
Kantaati Tohtorin – Ja Maisterin 0 Vihkijaisissa 31 Paivana Toukokuuta (1894) [31:47]
Promotional Cantata, with Helena Juntunen (soprano) and Juha Hostikka (baritone)
Partiolaisten Marssi, (Scout March) Op.91b (1918) [3:47]
Mann Virsi, Op.95 (1920) [5:47]
Processional (Onward, Ye Peoples) Op. 113 No. 6 (1927/1938) [3:46]
Dominante Choir
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland, 7–10 Jan, 21–24 Aug 2004. DDD
BIS-CD 1365 [74:22]

This well–filled disc is a continuation of the Sibelius Edition currently underway with BIS. The latest issues feature the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, recorded in the glorious acoustic of the Sibelius Hall, Lahti. This series started under the direction of Neeme Järvi in Gothenburg, and switched some time ago to the present artists. The current disc is apparently No. 57 in the series, but only the more recent issues have had a volume number. We are obviously getting to the less popular items in Sibelius’s oeuvre, but none the worse for that, as there is bound to be much less competition in this repertoire. Indeed, there are three world premiere recordings in this selection.

Vänskä’s skill in Sibelius is well known, and the current BIS offering is well up to the usual standard. The disc contains primarily choral items in fact all bar one are choral and the choir here is the Dominante. This choir is made up of young singers from the Helsinki University of Technology. The choral tradition in Finland, based upon the evidence of this disc, is extremely healthy, presumably because of the extensive and well established use of the Kodály method.

The works performed here come from the whole of the composer’s active life, from early, non-catalogued items, such as the Promotional Cantata, written in 1894 to the last item on the disc, written after Tapiola, right at the end of his career. They are all basically tonal, and relatively simple thematically speaking, although I am sure that to sing some of these will be quite difficult to master. Dominante does this magnificently with sure intonation and security of tone.

The earliest item on the disc is the Promotional Cantata, or more accurately the Cantata for the University Graduation Ceremonies of 1894. Sibelius felt obliged to write his Cantata as his teacher at the University obtained a temporary teaching position for the young composer and the production of such a cantata was an expected duty. The work was written in great haste, with the added complication that Sibelius was not happy dealing with the librettist Kasimir Leino. Since the graduation ceremony the work has been only rarely performed. The sprawling middle movement is where the two soloists are deployed, and I feel that they are the only performers on this disc which cause me a problem. The soprano is acceptable, but the baritone is decidedly raw in tone, and I found this a let-down.

The two Chorales are short, very pleasant pieces written right at the start of Sibelius’s career when he was in Berlin under tuition of Albert Becker. They were written not as religious works, but apparently as an academic exercise, along with numerous other short choral pieces.

The Captive Queen was composed during the political upheavals in Finland at the end of the Russification of the state. The story involves a young Queen who is held captive, and freed by the local hero. Written about the same time as Finlandia, the nationalistic fervour of the piece would not have been ignored by the contemporary audience. Orchestration similar to the beginning of En Saga and themes not unlike those in the Second Symphony proclaim the composer’s identity.

The later Scout March was written for a Helsinki scout group who provided Sibelius with the text. He set this to music the same day, by modifying a short work he had composed earlier for brass septet. The choral/orchestral version was probably written at about the same time.

Jordens Sang was written for the city of Turku, formerly the capital of the grand Duchy of Finland. After the Russian Revolution, and the declaration of Finnish Independence, it was decided to establish a new Swedish-language university in Turku. Sibelius was asked to compose a Cantata for the University, but Sibelius was wary, after having been told of the difficulties to be expected there. Neither the text, nor the occasion filled him with excitement – ‘I only did it because I was being paid’. It was later performed in Helsinki with the first performance of the definitive version of the Fifth Symphony, but has since fallen into obscurity.

The next work, Maan Virsi, had similar birth problems as Jordens Sang. He was asked to write it by Heikki Klemetti who had founded the Suomen Laulu Choir in 1900, and who had championed the composer’s music throughout Finland in the early years of the century. One would have thought that the composer would have been keen to support his colleague but Sibelius’s well known habit of sloth came to the fore. After much prevarication, Sibelius finally produced his Op. 95. It was not well received by Klemetti, who considered it merely a reworking of the material in Jordens Sang. This was reinforced by the fact that the title was Jordens Sang but rendered in Finnish.

The last piece on the disc is a very late work, written for the Masonic Lodge, established in Finland in 1756. Subsequently closed down by the Russians in 1809, a new lodge was set up in 1922, and Sibelius became a member. He was asked to write a series of songs for tenor and harmonium. Later, these original pieces were modified and converted. The Processional was originally written for the graduation ceremonies at Uppsala University in 1877. The Masonic Ritual Music, Op. 113 was written in 1927, and then modified in 1940, when various other pieces were added, and the texts altered to allow non-Masonic use. The work was first performed in Ann Arbor in 1939.

This BIS CD may be recommended to all completists who are in the process of collecting the whole of the Sibelius Series, as well as the general music-lover who has a curiosity about the choral works of Sibelius. I cannot imagine that we will get many other versions of these works, and if we do, they are unlikely to be performed and recorded better.

John Phillips




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