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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Spirit of Nature: songs, cantatas and orchestral works
Overture in E major, JS145 (1891) [11:17]
Scène de ballet, JS163 (1891) [8:36];
Kullervon valitus from Op.7 for bass and orchestra (1892 rev. 1957) [2:17]*;
Serenade, JS168 for baritone and orchestra (1894-5) [5:47];
I natten, Op.38 No.3 for baritone and orchestra (1903) [3:37]*;
Impromptu, Op.19 [original* and final versions] for women’s chorus and orchestra (1902, rev 1910) [5:27] [6:57];
Pan and Echo, Op.53 (1906) [4:07];
Höstkvåll, Op.38 No.1 for soprano and string orchestra (1903 arr. 1904) [4:55]*;
Hertig Magnus, Op.57 No.6 for soprano and orchestra (1909 arr. 1912) [3:35]*;
Luonnotar, Op.70 for soprano and orchestra (1913) [8:50];
Väinön virsi, Op.110 for mixed chorus and orchestra (1926) [8:53]
Jyrki Korhonen, (bass); Tommi Hakala, (baritone); Helena Juntunen, (soprano)
Dominante Choir
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. Jan 2004 - Aug 2005, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland. DDD
* world premiere recordings
Complete Sibelius Edition: Volume 58
BIS-CD-1565 [76:36]


No record company has recorded as much Sibelius as BIS. His works have been a constant since the launch of the label in the days of the LP when Neeme Järvi was the mainstay rather than Vänskä. Gradually the Järvi recordings have been supplanted by Vänskä although this is not invariably to the composer’s advantage.
 
For BIS and Robert von Bahr a major change came in the early 1990s with the concordat reached with the Sibelius family. This allowed BIS to set down variant versions of many works (violin concerto, symphony 5 and The Oceanides) as well as others never previously recorded. This disc could never have existed without that statement of confidence in BIS's ability to present the music with excellence and fidelity.
 
The present disc - number 58 in the Edition - is a fascinating assemblage of works that are at least unusual and sometimes rare. It will quite properly find a ready market among the world’s many Sibelians. It follows a number of BIS’s choral and orchestral discs including Song of the Earth (BIS-CD-1365) and Snöfrid (BIS-CD-1265). The mix is engaging with early works jostling late and mid. Choral works nudge orchestral and songs with orchestra.
 
The Overture and Scène de ballet are both from 1891. They were written in Vienna under the reins of two teachers, Fuchs and Goldmark. They were intended as the first two movements of a symphony. If it had come to fruition it would have been comparable with Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding - more of a symphonic suite than a completely resolved symphony. The Overture ends in Lisztian grandeur just tipping over into bombast. At the start and at other stages it is reminiscent of the pregnant tension of En Saga and the Karelia music. At 2.00 we get pre-echoes of the first Lemminkainen legend and of Kullervo at 5.12 onwards. In a decade and a half the uproar at the start of the Scène de Ballet would be transformed into something even more elementally apostrophising: the brassy rasping shudders at the start of Nightride and Sunrise. There are castanets and a much more generalised Iberian quality in Scène de Ballet and in the captivating Impromptu. This links with the Andante Festivo once available only in an EMI recording made in the 1950s by Beecham and in the 1960s by Alexander Gibson; the latter with the then SNO. These two works are Sibelius’s first surviving orchestral pieces.
 
In 1892 while still in Vienna Sibelius’s fascination with the Kalevala deepened. The result was the white hot Kullervo in which his inspiration and invention were touched off in a vital five movement symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Quite why Sibelius became dissatisfied with it I could never work out but that is exactly what happened. There were a handful of performances but after that the composer forbade any more. It was next performed shortly after his death. Its first commercial recording was the one made by Paavo Berglund for EMI in 1971. In the composer’s last year on earth he made an arrangement of the colossal, emphatic and stormily dramatic Kullervo’s Lament from the end of the third movement. The arrangement is pretty faithful to the original. The composer however writes a short coda to give a roundedly vehement concert ending to this very brief chip off the Kullervo block. The arrangement was done for Kim Borg (bass-baritone) who sang it at the Sibelius Week in June 1957 having appeared as soloist in the premiere of Atterberg’s Ninth Symphony Visionaria in February of that year. Here soloist Jyrki Korhonen is rather outfaced by the massive hammer-blows of the orchestra as it thunders out Kullervo’s tragedy. If Jyrki Korhonen is swamped by the orchestra it is perhaps less to do with any want of power and more with the balance in previous recordings unnaturally favouring the singer.
 
After the Thor hammer-blows of the Kullervon Valitus we come to Sibelius cast in troubadour role in Serenade. The sweet pianissimo rustle of the violin and the Tchaikovskian whisper-quiet pizzicato introduce us to Tommi Hakala's butter-scotch voice. The orchestral rustle was later to evolve into the gorgeous ambiguity of the trembling backdrop to Luonnotar.
 
The lighter Sibelius sometimes links with the lighter Elgar. Elgar's irresistibly lilting Spanish Serenade (see review on Dutton CDLX7148) has a certain feathery delight about it and the same applies to Sibelius 's plush caress in Impromptu a work in much the same vein. Both versions of the work include female chorus and both lilt mellifluously. Try following Elgar's Spanish Serenade with either version of Sibelius's Impromptu. The Sibelius work is wonderfully gentle but these feminine qualities are by no means exhaustive; at 1:01 there is a small rictus similar to the harp goaded ‘explosions’ in The Bard and Luonnotar.
 
This disc anthologises the lighter yet masterly Sibelius with the toughest and most awesome; not that boundaries are that simplistically defined in Sibelius. The most forbiddingly otherworldly, is Luonnotar, a work reflecting the minimalist quintessence of mystical Nordic beauty. This part tone poem-part scena is superbly sung. Vänskä ensures that the orchestral tissue is given a steady pulse which actually adds to the tension. Also BIS is unafraid of rendering the strings at whisper quiet levels. Be warned, those crowning climaxes delivered by Helen Juntunen may well rattle the rafters. For those who voted for Söderström and Ashkenazy (Decca) you will find this version a revelation. The singer here has a steady and responsively potent voice. Hers is youthful and pliant where Phyllis Bryn-Julson for Bernstein was heavily operatic. Much the same applied to Gwyneth Jones whose voice introduced me to the work on the EMI Dorati LP of the tone poems. I still cherish the version conducted by Berglund with the Bournemouth orchestra where the soprano was Taru Valjakka. Her singing was pretty much ideal and remains so though the Bournemouth EMI recording is now more than a quarter century old. Also excellent and on the same label is Mari-Anne Haggander with Jorma Panula conducting (see review). Juntunen now joins this small elite club in a work whose demands are of the cruellest. The world it inhabits is the primeval stage of the Kalevala, the creation epic part of the book. This ten minute concentrated epic inhabits the realms of The Bard and the Fourth Symphony on one hand and the icy cool lyricism of the Sixth Symphony on the other. Juntunen has a ‘torquey’ voice apt for those exposed sections where the singer must come in on some impossibly high note and sustain it at pianissimo. The harp and the rustlingly expectant strings show how Vänskä knew the idiom from the inside. This almost constant troika-like ostinato links with similar ‘gallop’ motifs in Nightride and Sunrise, and Lemminkainen's Return. While I await the new Ondine collection of Sibelius songs including Luonnotar from with Sakari Oramo this BIS disc nudges the top of the recommendations alongside Haggander and Valjakka. Interestingly there are echoes of Luonnotar in Höstkvåll too.
 
I natten is another troubadour style song - this time for baritone and orchestra. Once again a conspiratorial breathy tremble initiates and continues throughout. It is not a mile away from the whispered pent up tension of Stravinsky's The Firebird.
 
Juntunen is in light-suffused voice for Höstkvåll (Autumn Evening) which is a volatile scena for soprano and string orchestra. The green sap of her voice projects a far more feminine quality than the older Nilsson in the classic Bokstedt version now available on Decca Eloquence (Australia) (see review). Ms Juntunen is with full orchestra for Hertig Magnus. The rolling-turning strings at 0:55 recall the Second Symphony but then turn lightly serenading again at 1:20.
 
Among the more serious middle period Sibelius is the willowy slender Pan and Echo - termed a Dance-Intermezzo. Like The Oceanides it is linked with the world of classical antiquity rather than Nordic lore. Interesting that a Sibelius champion like Granville Bantock should also respond to the same culture as in his Cyprian Goddess and Pagan symphonies. There is an obstreperous Pan-led explosion at 2:38. Towards the end one catches suggestions of the Third Symphony. Otherwise this is a typically cool woodwind dominated genre piece.
 
Väinön Virsi is from 1926 and was Sibelius 's last cantata. It is often cheery and chipper - as at 1:30. The antiphonal by-play between the choir’s men and women adds many moments to savour (e.g. at 2:30) across the left and right channels.. a match for Maan virsi (Hymn of the earth), Jordens sang (Song of the earth), and Oma Maa (My native land). The orchestra may largely be of accompanimental significance but it is superbly rendered and the bass drum registers with wonderfully satisfying definition at 5:13. As if to unnerve us the master adds some raw brassy whoops towards the end and these come, shivering in splendour, from the world of the Fourth Symphony.
 
Typically the explanatory notes by Andrew Barnett (no relation) are full. The sung texts are printed alongside translations into English.
 
A must-buy for all Sibelians.
 
Rob Barnett
 

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