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Jean SIBELIUS (1865–1957)
YL – The voice of Sibelius
Six Songs, Op. 18 for male choir a cappella [11:49] (1. Sortunut ääni (The Broken Voice) (1898) [1:20]; 2. Treve kuu (Hail, O Moon) (1901) [3:10]; 3. Venematka (The Boat Journey) (1893) [1:34]; 4. Saarella palaa (Fire on the Island) (1895) [1:23]; 5. Metsämiehen laulu (The Woodsman’s Song) (1899) [1:36]; 6. Sydämeni laulu (Song of my Heart) (1898) [2:12])
7. Rakastava (The Lover), JS 160b (1894 – version for tenor, male choir and string orchestra) [6:28]
8. Koskenlaskijan morsiamet (The Rapid-Rider’s Brides), Op. 33 (1897, arr. 1943 – version for male choir and orchestra) [8:36]
9. Tulen synty (The Origin of Fire), for baritone, male choir and orchestra, Op. 32 (1902 – original version) [11:20]
10. Vapautettu kuningatar (The Captive Queen), Op. 48 (1906, arr. 1910 – version for male choir and orchestra [9:21]
11. Hymn (Natus in curas) for male choir a cappella, Op. 21 (1896 – original version) [3:55]*
12. Kuutamolla (In the Moonlight), for male choir a cappella, JS 114 (1898) [1:53]
13. Isänmaalle (To the Fatherland), for male choir a cappella, JS 98b (1899 – original version) [1:47]*
14. Verjeni vierailla mailla (My Brothers Abroad), for male choir a cappella, JS 217 (1904) [3:13]
15. Har du mod? (Have You Courage?), for male choir and orchestra, Op. 31 No. 2 (1904 – first version) [1:38]
16. Laulu Lemminkäiselle (A Song for Lemminkäinen), for male choir and orchestra, Op. 31 No 1 (1896) [4:08]
17. Jääkärien marssi (March of the Finnish Jäger Battalion), Op. 91a (1917, orch. 1918 – version for male choir and orchestra) [2:23]
18. Till havs (To Sea) for male choir a cappella, Op. 84 No. 5 (1917 – draft version) [1:59]*
Two Songs, Op. 108 (1925) for male choir a cappella [6:19]
19. 1. Humoreski (Humoresque) [3:28]
20. 2. Ne pitkän matkan kulkijat (Wanderers on the Long Way) [2:44]
21. Finlandia-Hymni (Finlandia Hymn) for male choir a cappella, from Op. 26 (1899/1900, arr. 1940) [2:05]
Tom Nyman (tenor) (7); Tommi Hakala (baritone) (9)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä (7-10, 15-17)
YL Male Voice Choir/Matti Hyökki
rec. Nya Paviljongen, Kauniainen, Finland, April 2006 (1-6, 11-14, 19, 21), September 2006 (18, 20); Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland, January 2005 (7, 8), May 2005 (9, 10), January 2006 (15); Church of the Cross (Ristinkirkko), Lahti, Finland, January 2000 (16, 17). DDD
Texts and English translations enclosed.
* denotes World Premiere Recording
BIS BISCD1433 [79:46]
Experience Classicsonline

No choir in Finland or elsewhere has a longer tradition singing the music of Sibelius than YL – the Helsinki University-based male voice choir. It was founded in 1883. When Kullervo was premiered in 1892 singers from YL formed the backbone of the male choir. When, the following year, Sibelius started writing music for male choir a cappella his very first composition, Venematka, was written for YL’s tenth anniversary. The song was later published as No. 3 of the Six Songs Op. 18. The BIS booklet lists the Sibelius works that the choir premiered and it comprises more than half of those included here. These range from Venematka on 6 April 1893 to the official premiere with orchestra of Jääkärien marssi on 19 January 1918.
We tend to think of Sibelius as primarily a composer of orchestral music but his vocal production is large. In the solo songs as well as his music for choir there is essentially the same monumental harshness and barrenness as in his symphonic music – characteristics that largely mirror the nature of Finland in both connotations of the word: the geography as well as the disposition of its inhabitants.
For his solo songs Sibelius often chose Swedish poems but when composing for choir it seems that Finnish came more naturally. This may have something to do with the solo song being private and individual while choral music is collective and nationalistic. For much of his symphonic music he drew inspiration from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epos. Several of these choral pieces are also settings of texts from the same source or the poetic equivalent, the Kanteletar. Two of the Op. 18 songs are also settings of texts by Aleksis Kivi, the Finnish national writer who was the first professional writer to publish his works in Finnish. He is best known for the novel Seitsemän veljestä (1870, Seven Brothers) which has historical importance for being the first novel in the Finnish language.
As member of a male choir from the late 1960s until the early 1980s I also became familiar with Sibelius’s choral music. Sortunut ääni, the first in Op. 18, was often featured in our programmes. It is a powerful song, short, but within the span of little more than a minute it is an adventure for the singers as well as the audience. The Finnish language, so rich on vowels, is also grateful. In a way it sings itself. Coming back to the song  after almost thirty years I found that I still knew it – at least partly – and could join in but only fragments of the text remained in my memory. The words are from the Kanteletar, and so is Saarella palaa, which was the most impressive of the songs I didn’t already know. I have to admit that good though my old choir was, we were no match for YL. Swedish OD has claims to be one of the world’s best male choirs but YL are on the same level. There is a homogeneity in the sound that is stunning, no first tenors obtruding from the texture – a flaw even in good choirs. Dynamic shadings are also sensitively applied. This is due in no small degree to the control exercised by the eminent Matti Hyökki, who has been conductor of YL since 1980.
Of the remaining a cappella songs, Hymn, a setting of a Latin text by Fridolf Gustafsson, is achingly beautiful. This is one of three world premiere recordings on the disc. The other two are more ordinary. Isänmaalle is patriotic and will touch the heart-strings of nationalist Finns, being written just around the turn of the last century when there was growing opposition against the rule of Russia. Till havs is a powerful maritime canvas but it still feels pale in comparison with the setting for solo voice by Swedish composer Gustav Nordqvist (1886–1949), which was one of Jussi Björling’s show-pieces. The best known of these songs is Finlandia-Hymni, a setting of the hymn section from the orchestral composition. It still evokes strong feelings among Finns as well as Swedes with memories – direct or indirect – from WW2. Kuutamolla and Veljeni vierailla mailla are two evocative songs that I regret I haven’t heard before. They are both little gems which I will be proud to play to choristers I know.
Rakastava is known primarily as a work for string orchestra but that is a much later arrangement. It was written in 1894 for a competition organized by YL and is for male choir a cappella with tenor soloist. Sibelius also arranged it for mixed choir. The version heard here has an accompaniment with strings which Sibelius wrote to facilitate intonation problems. I believe YL could have managed it without the strings but in whatever shape it is performed it is among the most beautiful music Sibelius ever wrote. The tenor soloist Tom Nyman sings mellifluously.
The three long compositions for choir and full orchestra, Koskenlaskijan morsiamet, Tulen synty and Vapautettu kuningatar are strong and powerful, showing Sibelius’s dramatic vein. He may not have been disposed to write opera – his only essay in the field, Jungfrun i tornet (1896), is interesting but hardly a masterpiece. However he composed a lot of incidental music so he certainly had an interest in theatre and there is a kind of theatricality in these works, even though the epic quality is most notable. Tulen synty (The Origin of Fire), a setting of a text from Kalevala, is an especially strong composition with violent contrasts in dynamics and tempos and with great melodic appeal. Tommi Hakala delivers an impressive dramatic reading of the solo part with intensity in the Jorma Hynninen mould. Hakala, who was born in 1970, was winner of the BBC Singer of the World Competition in 2003.
Recording and documentation are, as always with a BIS issue, exemplary, though the print of the sung texts is too small. It should be mentioned that at least the works with orchestra have been issued before (BIS-CD-1525) but I haven’t been able to find the a cappella works in the catalogue. This is however in all respects an important issue. Even if you do not have a specific interest in choral music you should consider a purchase.
Göran Forsling


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