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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Karelia Overture, op.10 (1893) [7:32]
Serenade No. 1 in D for violin and orchestra, op.69a (1912) [6:09]
Serenade No. 2 in G minor for violin and orchestra, op.69b (1912) [6:11]
The Wood Nymph (Ballad), op.15 (1895) [21:05]
Scènes historiques, Suite No.1, op.25 (1899) [17:28] (1 All’Overtura [(4:25]; 2 Scena [5:25]; 3 Festivo (Bolero) [7:38])
Finlandia, op.26 (1900) [8.39]
Sakari Tapponen (violin)
Gothenburg-Aarhus Philharmonic/Douglas Bostock
rec. 12-14 January 2007, Frichsparken, Aarhus. DDD
CLASSICO CLASSCD 733 [67:34]




Here’s an interesting CD, spotlighting unknown works by a great master. The main attraction of this disc must be the new recording of The Wood Nymph, a 21 minute symphonic poem, written in 1895, but unknown until the 1990s due to its never being published. The story is simple: Bjørn is bewitched by a wood nymph, leaves his wife and home and dies lonely, and, according to the notes yearning – but for what isn’t explained and the music doesn’t help me work this out either. It starts with the kind of music we associate with Lemminkäinen. The Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends), op.22 was written at about the same time. This gives way to a slower, chorale-like section whilst continuing to develop the musical material already presented. About half way through we arrive at a lighter textured, slow, section which is on a lower level of inspiration than the opening music. As Sibelius works up the tension to the close there is a strong feeling that he is merely marking time. So the first half is very fine indeed, the second less so. If only Sibelius had returned to this work, as he did the Lemminkäinen Suite, we might have had another masterpiece. I do find it odd that Sibelius kept this work in his conducting repertoire for several years after its première then totally discarded it. Perhaps it was this disparity of inspiration which finally led him to let the work slip into obscurity.

It’s a mystery why the Karelia Overture, whose middle section contains a statement of the theme of the Intermezzo (1st movement) from the better known Karelia Suite, has never caught on with the public or concert promoters. It’s a jaunty little thing which should be better known but perhaps its neglect is due to its generally light-hearted nature and the fact that it doesn’t sound particularly Sibelian.

The two Serenades are beautiful miniatures, thoughtful and carefully wrought, gratifying to play and, due to their brevity, they leave you wanting more.

At the end of the 19th century Finland was under Russian domination and in 1899 the Tsar issued the February Manifesto which limited Finnish autonomy. Thus came about the Press Celebrations, ostensibly to raise money for journalists’ pensions. In reality the proceeds were intended for the preservation of the freedom of the Finnish press which was seen to be at risk from the Russian presence in Finland and its policies. For the Celebrations, Sibelius wrote a short overture and music to accompany six tableaux: the 1st Suite of Scènes historiques derives from this music. It isn’t important which scene became which piece as all three movements are self-contained due to Sibelius having reworking the music in 1911. If you want to see how Sibelius changed his original tableaux into the Scènes historiques, there’s complete recordings of the Press Celebrations music (coupled with other vocal works) conducted by Osmo Vänskä (BIS-CD-1115) or conducted by Tuomas Ollila-Hannikainen (coupled with the original Karelia music) (Ondine ODE 913-2). The final tableaux of the Press Celebrations music was entitled Finland Wakes! Sibelius immediately reworked this as Finlandia, which ends this collection.

Formed in 2005, the Gothenburg-Aarhus Philharmonic is a student ensemble, consisting of members of the Music Academies in Göteborg, Sweden and Aarhus, Denmark. It’s a well-disciplined group and these performances are very well played. They’re also rather dull: it was only a dogged sense of duty which made me sit through the whole CD – twice. The performances never take off and leap out of the speakers to grab you. The fault must lie firmly with the conductor Douglas Bostock for his uninspiring leadership. Two examples will suffice, I think, to show this approach. The opening section of The Wood Nymph is the kind of galloping music we know from the Lemminkäinen Suite, but the headlong rush, the sense of urgency, is missing. Likewise, Finlandia. I know it’s a hackneyed work these days but the fast music should still be thrilling and the coda full and broad. This is leaden-footed and, strangely, unenthusiastic. The recorded sound is also rather dull.

There are finer performances of all the works recorded here – many of them currently available.

Although this disk boasts The Wood Nymph to be a première recording of the new edition prepared by the publisher Breitkopf and Härtel, you’ll find a much better performance - of the earlier version - by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä. That performance is to be had on BIS-CD-1900/02 – part of a five CD set of various versions of Sibelius’s tone poems – or coupled with the original monodrama on which the orchestral work is based, A Lonely Ski-Trail (both with Lasse Pöysti as narrator) and Swanwhite, op.54 on BIS-CD-815.

The violin Serenades are best served by the much missed Ralph Holmes with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vernon Handley, coupled with the Two Pieces: Laetare anima mea (Cantique) and Ab imo pectore (Devotion), op.77 and the six Humoresques, opp.87 and 89 on a much sought after (long deleted but well worth the search) LP, namely Schwann VMS 1604 - (recorded in 1980). If you can’t wait until you find Holmes’s disc, try the same coupling, with the addition of the Overture in E major and Ballet Scene, by Dong-Suk Kang with the Göteborgs Symfoniker conducted by Neeme Järvi on BIS (BIS-CD-472).

I favour Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra - as it was when this disk was recorded - in the Scènes historiques – an excellent example of how fine a Sibelius conductor Gibson was. This is a good selection of Sibelius, comprising both suites of Scènes historiques, with Rakastava and the Valse Lyrique, op.96 on Chandos CHAN 6591.

Anthony Collins’s Decca recordings, made in the 1950s with the London Symphony Orchestra, of Sibelius’s symphonies are still, and quite justly, highly prized. At the same time he recorded a handful of smaller works, the Karelia Overture included. This performance is well worth having. It is available as part of a 4 CD set of his complete Sibelius recordings (Beulah 14PD8). You can also track it down on the inexpensive Decca Eloquence 442 9493 alongside the last three symphonies and various tone poems.

I wish I could welcome this ClassicO CD for, as I wrote at the beginning, this is an interesting disc, spotlighting unknown works by a great master, but this music needs a firmer hand in control.

Bob Briggs



 


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