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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Luonnotar and Orchestral Songs

Kaiutar, Op. 72/4 (Larin-Kyösti) (arr. Jussi Jalas) [3:07]
Luonnotar, Op. 70 (Kalevala) [8:49]
Men min fågel märks dock icke, Op. 36/2 (J.L. Runeberg) (arr. Ernest Pingoud) [2:47]
Säv, säv susa, Op. 36/4 (arr. Ivar Hellman) (G. Fröding) [2:32]
Demanten på marssnön, Op. 36/6 (J.J. Wecksell) [2:36]
Våren flyktar hastigt, Op. 13/4 (J.L. Runeberg) [1:35]
Under strandens granar, Op. 13/1 (J.L. Runeberg) (arr. Jussi Jalas) [5:10]
Den första kyssen, Op. 37/1 (J.L. Runeberg) (arr. Nils-Eric Fougstedt) [1:58]
Soluppgång, Op. 37/3 (T. Hedberg) [2:17]
Var det en dröm?, Op. 37/4 (J.J. Wecksell) (arr. Jussi Jalas) [2:22]
Höstkväll, Op. 38/1 (V. Rydberg) [4:54]
På verandan vid havet, Op. 38/2 (V. Rydberg) [3:39]
Arioso, Op. 3 (J.L. Runeberg) [4:38]
Illalle, Op. 17/6 (A.V. Forsman-Koskimies) (arr. Jussi Jalas) [1:21]
Lastu lainehilla, Op. 17/7 (Ilmari Kianto) (arr. Jussi Jalas) [0:58]
Souda, souda, sinisorsa (A.V. Forsman-Koskimies) (arr. Jussi Jalas) [1:17]
S'en har jag ej frågat mera, Op. 17/1 (J.L. Runeberg) [2:43]
En slända, Op. 17/5 (O. Levertin) (arr. Jussi Jalas) [4:02]
Hertig Magnus, Op. 57/6 (E. Josephson) [3:18]
Soile Isokoski (soprano)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, October 2005. DDD
ONDINE ODE 1080-5 SACD [61:37]

 

Because his symphonies are so wonderful, Sibeliusís vocal music is often overlooked. Yet in many ways it is integral to his development as a composer.

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, unusual piece.

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 delightful.

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 avant garde.

Luonnotar may 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 for drama.

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 orchestra.

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 proud!

Anne Ozorio

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.

Kaiutar (Echo-Nymph) 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.

Luonnotar is 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.

Interestingly only 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 listening?

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.

Rob Barnett

 



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