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Jean SIBELIUS (1865 – 1957)
Songs, Volume 1
Illalle (To Evening), Op. 17, No. 6 [1:37]
Våren flyktar hastigt (Spring is flying), Op. 13, No. 4 [1:37]
Den första kyssen (The First Kiss), Op. 37, No. 1 [1:54]
Svarta rosor (Black Roses), Op. 36, No. 1 [2:03]
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (The Tryst), Op. 37, No. 5 [2:50]
Säv, säv, susa (Reed, reed, rustle), Op. 36, No. 4 [2:33]
Var det en dröm? (Was it a Dream?), Op. 37, No. 4 [1:57]
Demanten på marssnön (The Diamond on the March Snow), Op. 36, No. 6 [2:45]
Lastu lainehilla (Driftwood), Op. 17, No. 7 [1:33]
Souda, souda, sinisorsa (Row, row, duck), JS 180 [1:45]
Kaiutar (The Echo Nymph), Op. 72, No. 4 [3:13]
Segelfahrt (Sailing), JS 166 [1:51]
Im Feld ein Mädchen singt (In the Field a Maid Sings), Op. 50, No. 3 [3:03]
Sehnsucht (Longing), Op. 50, No. 2 [1:51]
Die stille Stadt (The Silent City), Op. 50, No. 5 [2:45]
Serenadi (Serenade), JS 167 [3:02]
En visa (A Song), JS 71 [1:41]
Den första kyssen (The First Kiss), JS 57* [2:10]
Orgier (Orgies), JS 143* [2:21]
Säv, säv, susa (Reed, reed, rustle), JS 42* [2:08]
Soluppgång (Sunrise), JS 87* [2:31]
Vänskapens blomma (The Flower of Friendship), JS 215* [2:44]
Six Songs, Op. 88:
No. 1: Sinivuokko (Blåsippan: The Anemone) [0:52]
No. 2: Kaksi ruusua (De bägge rosorna: The Two Roses) [1:19]
No. 3: Valkovuokko (Vitsippan: The Wood Anemone) [1:19]
No. 4: Vuokko (Sippan: The Primrose) [1:03]
No. 5: Villiruusu (Törnet: The Thorn) [2:17]
No. 6: Kukkasen (Blommans öde: The Flower’s Destiny) [1:33]
Narsissi (Narciss: Narcissus), JS 140 [2:17]
Hymn to Thaïs, the Unforgettable [2:03]
* World Première Recording
Hannu Jurmu (tenor); Jouni Somero (piano);
rec. Sellosali, Espoo, Finland, 28–30 July, 1, 13-14 August 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.570019 [62:28]

 


Of Jean Sibelius’s hundred-odd songs, the majority are settings of Swedish poems. Only a handful are in Finnish, which after all was his second language. There are also a number in German and a couple of English settings. While much of the Finnish master’s orchestral output has been incorporated in the international standard repertoire – the symphonies and the symphonic poems at least – his songs have lead a peripheral life on the recital platforms outside Scandinavia. A handful may be regarded as fairly well-known, mainly through Nordic singers who have championed them: Svarta rosor and Säv, säv, susa often appeared on Jussi Björling’s programmes and he recorded them on several occasions. There are however many great songs that should be better known, due to their power and their melodic individuality. Many of them are rugged, knotty like Finnish birch-trees while others reveal a warm mind behind the composer’s stern appearance. Among the songs on this first volume are several of his best and most often heard but also some rarities. In fact five of the songs have never been recorded before. They are early essays from the late 1880s and early 1890s and in two of the cases – Den första kyssen (tr. 18) and Säv, säv, susa (tr. 20) –  it is interesting to make comparisons with the well-known settings of the same poems from a decade later by the mature composer. Long-standing familiarity with these master-pieces is unfavourable for the assessment of the juvenile products – ‘juvenile’ used here only as a connotation for ‘not-yet-fully-fledged’, not alluding to Sibelius’s actual age at the time of composing. These ‘first-timers’ come out as fumbling efforts and I believe Sibelius was right in keeping them to himself. As an antithesis we are also offered the six songs op. 88 from 1917, which are contemporaneous with his Six Humoresques for violin and orchestra. These, as well as one of his last songs, Narsissi, from 1925, roughly from the time of his seventh symphony, although set to Swedish poems, are performed in Finnish.

The piano parts often require a powerful virtuoso. Sibelius himself was not a very good pianist – his instrument was the violin – but he knew what effects he could entice from the instrument. The pianist on this disc, Jouni Sumero, gives the accompaniments the full treatment, placing them on singing terms with the vocal line. Mr Sumero has of course an important career as a soloist with over 40 recordings to his credit. His contributions are a great asset to this production. More, in fact, than the singing, which is unfortunately to a great extent below par. Hannu Jurmu has impressive credentials, mainly as an operatic tenor. I was a little surprised when reading the bio in the booklet, having listened to a number of the songs, that his repertoire doesn’t include roles like Manrico and Radames, since that is the sound-world his delivery most often suggests.

Recorded at several sessions during a period spanning a fortnight his indisposition may have varied but at least in the first songs on the disc he sings with considerable strain, raw, unsophisticated tone, clumsy phrasing and hesitant intonation. In Svarta rosor (tr. 4) his intentions are good but the execution leaves much to be desired. The last line offers impressive heroic singing but the notes don’t grow organically out of what has gone before, they just stick out, purposeless and grating.

I was beginning to despair when suddenly came Säv, säv, susa, where he scales down and sings softly, revealing a mellifluous mezzo forte. This is one of the best readings. Lastu lainehilla is another song where he keeps the volume down to good effect. Singing in Finnish he seems to get closer to the kernel of the text. That also goes for Souda, souda, sinisorsa. I wish he had resorted to this agreeable part of his voice more often.

He also sounds uncomfortable in the four songs in German (trs. 12–15): four-square and wayward. All of them are however rather second-rate Sibelius, with the possible exception of Die stille Stadt. Of the early songs Orgier (tr. 19) is an orgy in shouting and roaring, but En visa (tr. 17) from 1888 is sung simply and with much freer voice. The first Säv, säv, susa (tr. 20) and Soluppgång (tr. 21) also find him in good shape with beautiful timbre, a real ring to the top notes and practically free from all signs of strain. They must have been recorded on a particularly good day, possibly the same as Kukkasen kohtalo (tr. 28), which, inwardly and beautifully sung, is one of the readings I shall want to return to. Narsissi (tr. 29) is also among his best efforts. The only English song on the disc, Hymn to Thaïs brings the recital to a good end.

The recorded sound is excellent and the reproduction of the piano does full justice to Jouni Sumero’s playing. We have to make do without the sung texts but Keith Anderson provides good liner-notes. I wonder how many he has produced on practically all genres and epochs through the years.

This is a recital with ups and downs and unfortunately the ups are in the minority. The Swedish popular singer Sven-Olof Sandberg, who in the 1930s was the best-selling recording artist in the country, at the end of the decade decided to train his voice under professional tuition. He went to the renowned Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop who resided in Stockholm and amongst whose pupils were Jussi Björling and Birgit Nilsson. After the audition Hislop said: “Mr Sandberg, your voice is like a dunghill!” When the singer stood up to leave he added: “But on top of that hill there grows a tender flower. This flower we are going to take care of.” So he did and a couple of years later Mr Sandberg could make his debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. Mr Jurmu’s flower has already been tended by excellent teachers with good results – as his CV tells us – but during these recording sessions it was allowed to blossom in its full splendour only intermittently. I am afraid this isn’t enough to allow a recommendation but I dearly hope I will get an opportunity to hear him again when that splendour is more consummate. In the meantime I advise readers to search out three lower-voiced Finnish singers, whose recordings of Sibelius give a more relevant picture of his greatness:

The gorgeous warm-toned bass Kim Borg made an LP for DG in the late 1950s with Erik Werba at the piano. A decade ago it was released, together with other recordings, both opera and song, on a 3-CD set by Finlandia. On the same label both Tom Krause and Jorma Hynninen have recorded various songs by Sibelius. Krause, although recorded when he was nearing 60, is deeply involved and involving. Much earlier he recorded the complete Sibelius songs for Decca, with Elisabeth Söderström singing the ones best suited for the female voice. It was released on CD not too long ago. A thrillingly vibrant Sibelius disc is also available on Naxos, though possibly never released outside Scandinavia, with one-time Cardiff Lieder Prize Winner Kirsi Tiihonen. For those who can stand a tension comparable to a nuclear power station this is a find. BIS, who have recorded more Sibelius than any other company, also have two discs with his songs with two of the great Nordic mezzos: Anne Sofie von Otter and Monica Groop. One can’t go wrong with any of these.

Göran Forsling

 

 


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