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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Sibelius Edition - Volume 8
Orchestral Works: Violin Concerto, concertante pieces, suites and lighter pieces
Leonidas Kavakos (violin); Dong-Suk Kang (violin); Jaakko Kuusisto (violin); Marko Ylönen (cello); Raimo Laukka (baritone); Soloists: Heikki Laitinen and Taito Hoffren (folk singers)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 1982-2008, Lahti, Finland; Gothenburg, Sweden. DDD
6 CDs for the price of 3
Detailed track-listing at end of review
BIS-CD-1921-23 [6 CDs: 420:03] 
Experience Classicsonline

At least three cheers for the appearance of volume 8 in this momentous series.

This has as a central feature the music for solo instrument and orchestra. While the symphonies have yet to be issued in this uniform edition the tone poems have been out since 2007. In the present volume we are treated to all the concertante pieces including the final and original versions of the Violin Concerto and a variant of the first of the luminously irresistible Six Humoresques. There are however many other orchestral revelations here - some fluffy and unassuming; some of memorable fibre.

The 1891 Overture in E major purrs along, smilingly delightful and airborne with fore-echoes of En Saga and Kullervo. It is from Sibelius's second year in Vienna as is the Scène de ballet with its castanets and suavely winged unending melody. Its characteristic woodwind writing looks a little forward to Karelia and further onward to The Tempest.

The Karelia music is from a student's pageant designed to promote Finnish nationalism. It is heard here in eight tableaux and an overture. Four of the episodes were completed and reconstructed by Kalevi Aho in 1997. The overture is familiar from the Alexander Gibson recording for CFP. Tableau 1 (Karelian home - News of war (1293)) includes two lightly tenoral folk singers: Heikki Laitinen and Taito Hoffren singing 'off' each other. The Viipuri Castle movement is a grand unwinding Moderato assai and is not distinctively Sibelian. Tableau 3 depicts the tax-levying Duke of Lithuania in alertly warlike tones followed by the hushy-bustling Intermezzo familiar from the Karelia Suite's introductory music. Tableau 4 has the gentle middle movement melody of the Suite but here heard with Raimo Lukka singing the ballad after a long orchestral foreword. The voice is counterpointed and shadowed by the horn of Pertti Kuusi. The words as mournfully sung. The English translation is given on pages 108-109 of the booklet. The stormy Tableau 5 looks forward to the elemental music for The Tempest prelude. The Intermezzo element of Tableau 5 is the Alla marcia from the suite. Tableau 6 is The Siege of Viipuri, a bristling piece of bustling silver-spiky music - part Mendelssohn and part Bruckner scherzo. Tableaux 7 and 8 reflects the reunion of Karelia (Old Finland) with the rest of Finland in 1811. This is haunting and dignified music driven on by oboe and wonderfully catchy string writing. All ends in whirling activity with the Finnish national anthem and a vorticial rush. The burnished Finnish national anthem is played with all the imperial majesty of the Austro-Hungarian double-eagle.

Disc 2 opens with the Karelia Overture in the edition Sibelius chose to publish. Then comes the familiar Karelia Suite in its compact familiar version, polished and with superbly terraced dynamics. There's a kindly and bouncy Alla marcia.

After a fairly severe and even mournful Impromptu arranged from the op. 5 nos. 5 and 6 piano solos comes a luminously beautiful Presto. This is an arrangement for string orchestra of the 1889-90 scherzo from the B flat major string quartet. It suffers from some halting pauses but is otherwise delectable and should be part of the standard repertoire for all string orchestras.

The Press Celebrations Music is from 1899. Previously recorded by Ondine, it comprises a diffuse though sometimes rousing Prelude, six tableaux and another piece to be played between tableaux 5 and 6. The hovering excitement of the Vainamoinen movement relates the music to the Lemminkainen poems. Tableau 2 touches off recollections of Mussorgsky's cathedral scenes with its bells and Slav-style chorale. The music has its fascinations but is lower key and seemingly written at speed. The final Finland Awakes is familiar as Finlandia, It is here given with accentuated passion. The only difference I noted was a slower yearning extension to the final two or three minutes and a slightly more bombastic epilogue suggesting affiliation with the overstatement of Tchaikovsky's 1812.

Disc 3 includes Kavakos's well known and highly poetic reading of the final version of the Concerto alongside some real rarities. The sequence follows a broadly chronological path. The 1894 Menuetto prepares you for the theatre music but is not as deftly put together - Tchaikovsky-Glazunov perhaps. Much fun is had with the tambourine. The 1896 Coronation March for Nicholas II reminded me of early Delius with rousing contributions from the wind benches. Then comes Sibelius's arrangement of the Pori Regiment's quick-stepping march. The 1902 Overture in A minor is reserved yet suffused with light and the slow roll of brass fanfares. The piece was written to go with the concert premiere of the Second Symphony. The 1904 C major Romance has been in Sibelians' vocabulary since Rozhdestvensky's recording with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra was first issued in the 1960s. It remains a dignified piece yet not at all assertive. The Cortège is a pièce d'occasion in relaxed Tchaikovskian garb. Pan and Echo is broadly ripe; vintage Sibelius and another example alongside The Oceanides of Mediterranean mythic inspiration. The Countess's Portrait again has a Delian redolence. It is slow and undemonstrative; dignified and reserved. After this comes the well-loved and respected Kavakos reading of the Violin Concerto. It is most spaciously and agreeably recorded and the growl and impact when it comes has a full set of teeth and grip aplenty.

CD 4 features all the mainstream non-concerto works for violin and orchestra as well as two diminutive marches. We also hear the 1912 version of Rakastava in a full-blooded recording using the version for strings, timpani and triangle. The choral version will be found in another volume. Fragments from the 1914 suite for orchestra include premonitions of The Oceanides but not in such a masterly structure or web of ideas. Fascinating though. You can read a fuller story in a separate review. The pairs of Serenades and Serious Melodies are soulful and romantic. They have the quality of molasses - heavily Tchaikovsky or Glazunov but with more shafts of delicacy than either master could match. The murmur with which Ab imo pectore starts recalls the occlusive tense writing of Warlock and Goossens. These genre pieces have fine poetic value in their own right but they are no match for the truly wonderful Humoresques from 1917-18. Kang is a wonderful advocate, spinning silver and satin but don't neglect to supplement this with Rosand's old Turnabout version. As a Sibelius explorer you need to hear the Humoresques. They are gleaming cool and cold jewels in the Sibelius patrimony.

The Academic March was written for the Helsinki University degree ceremony in 1919. It's a smoothly-paced piece with a Brahmsian caste to the melodies but some distinctly unBrahmsian woodwind and harp.

The catchy march of the Finnish Jäger Battalion was written in response to words submitted by members of the 27th Royal Prussian Jäger Battalion who fought shoulder to shoulder alongside the Imperial German army in 1916-17.

Then comes a short playing CD: only 51:23. These pieces are largely from the pot-boiling 1920s. They were written to specification for publishers anxious for unassuming, approachable salon music from the world's greatest contemporary composer. They kept the composer in cigars and whiskey, adding a flourish to his enlightened state salary. These pieces, or many of them, featured on Charles Groves LPs from the RLPO in the 1970s Gemini. The Valse Lyrique is both grand and ordinary. Autrefois has the two entwining clarinets of Tuula Ylönen and Matti Rouvali. It rattles no reputations but is charming enough. The last of the Op. 96 set is the fluffy Valse chevalresque. He must have cast his memory back to Vienna for the tradition is clearly courted but not allowed to suffocate. The 1921 Suite Mignonne for two flutes and orchestra is better than the Op. 96 pieces. It floats by in just short of six minutes and is fairly close to the chirpy dreamy theatre music. Then we encounter the Suite Champêtre for strings which has a more robust heart yet is still sentimental. Jaakko Kuusisto reminds us that, in 1922, the composer had some thoughts about the Humoresques in his glintingly brief Danse - even if it does sound a little like Binge's Elizabethan Serenade. Harpist Leena Saarenpaa holds our hand through the string orchestra Suite Caractéristique, also of 1922. The whole thing is over before you realise at just five seconds short of five minutes. It has a Spanish Vivo, a Lento of stately largesse and a tripping Comodo. This is Elgarian light music in Finnish garb. Morceau romantique is over in less that two minutes. It's the best of the light pieces on CD 5 with some delectable writing along the best of the theatre music. Dong-Suk Kang returns with the three movement Suite for violin and strings - it's carefree but just a touch ordinary for this extraordinary composer. Still, you need to hear it as a sort of slightly off-day set of Humoresques. It has a Mozartean pastoral Country Scenery, a hushed Evening in Spring which recalls Beethoven's Pastoral and then a flighty Humoresque-style In the Summer which flitters and flutters like a demented bee.

The wondrously glowing Andante Festivo had its origins in a 1922 piece for string quartet. It is soulful and fervent Sibelius and registers well in the version the composer made for full orchestra in 1938 at the request of Olin Downes. Sibelius's live broadcast from Helsinki for the New York World Fair of 1938-39 was taken down on disc and is the only recording of Sibelius conducting (it's on Ondine). The same World Fair also saw premieres - this time on-site rather than distant - of Bax's Seventh Symphony and Bliss's Piano Concerto. 

Lastly on CD 5 we hear the Processional written for the New Masonic Lodge of Finland. Sibelius became a member and received a generous payment from the Lodge. Processional was originally called Salem. It is a stunningly curvaceous and satisfying melody. It is here heard in an arrangement for large orchestra with the string contingent contribution superbly intoned and rolled out. It began life for tenor and harmonium but was then arranged for choir by Channing Lefevre. That version of the original piano accompaniment was in turn arranged for orchestra by the composer. It makes for a gloriously satisfying work in its own right.

The last disc is not addressed directly by Andrew Barnett's notes - or at elast not in one place. He picks up on alternative versions throughout his narrative on the first five discs which contain the works in approximately chronological order. Tableaux 7/8 rouses itself from a generalised tense musing to a great Lisztian storm which then touches on The Tempest music and morphs into the grandeur of the Finnish National Anthem.

The world premiere recording of the Impromptu for string orchestra has a discreet Elgarian ostinato and - for Sibelius - a rather anonymous melody.

The original version of the Violin Concerto should be experienced almost as a new work with its more relentless violin solo line. The whole work in Kavakos's hands is 39:17 as against the recognised final version at 34:44. You may care to have a look at a review of the original individual disc.

The Paris version of Rakastava was his first shot at arranging the 1894 choral suite for Breitkopf & Härtel. He quickly recanted of it and produced a markedly more subtle edition working without distraction in Järvenpäa as opposed to the one he had rapidly produced in Paris. The cello and orchestra versions of Two Serious Melodies are here lovingly turned by Marko Ylönen with more vibrato than accorded to them by Dong-Suk Kang on CD 4. They are still fairly treacly yet with sufficient spice from the woodwind to prevent them congealing. In Ab Imo Pectore that instrumental rustle reminds me of the accompaniment for the song He bear him up he bear him down by Warlock.

The valedictory track in this fascinating collection, the first of the Humoresques op. 87 no. 1 is played by Kuusisto in the 1917 original version. It differs only in the accompaniment. It's nice to have accessible the stimulation of slight differences in the orchestral tissue. Both this track and the two Serious Melodies in the cello version were first issued in 2006 as part of Bis's Seriously Sibelius disc.

Exemplary Sibelius including not a few world premiere recordings. Vintage works alongside rarities and all in versions you could live with lifelong both as exemplars of the interpretative art and as recordings.

Anyone picking up this set without forethought and new to Sibelius would be getting less than they might have hoped from the title Orchestral Works but a glance at the back of the box would put them right. Roll on volume 9. The only other feasible complaint is about the standardised oversize card wallet - superbly designed but profligate of precious shelf space.

Bis your world audience is on a hook - let's have the other boxes ahead of schedule, if you can. Then perhaps you will issue the complete series in a deluxe wooden case, or Hyperion style with a separate book or even complete on a 320Gb IPod.

This is majestic enterprise is carried through with artistic and technical values to match the exalted music which is its subject and its sustaining inspiration.

Rob Barnett

Full Tracklist 
CD 1
Overture in E major, JS145 (1891);
Scène de ballet, JS163 (1891);
Karelia, JS115 (1893 - completed and reconstructed by Kalevi Aho): Overture and Tableaux 1-8

CD 2
#Karelia Overture, Op.10 (1893);
Karelia Suite, Op.11 (1893);
#Impromptu for string orchestra (1893, arr. 1894);
Presto for string orchestra (1889-90, arr. 1894)
Press Celebrations Music, JS137 (1899) (Preludio, Tableaux 1-6; Music played during the tableau)

CD 3
Menuetto, JS127 (1894);
Coronation March (1896 - from the Cantata for the Coronation of Nicholas II, JS104);
Porilaisten marssi, JS152 (arr.1900);
Overture in A minor, JS144 (1902);
Romance in C major for string orchestra, Op.42 (1904);
Cortège, JS54 (1905);
Pan and Echo, Op.53 (1906);
Grevinnans konterfej, JS88 (1906);
Concerto in D minor for violin and orchestra, Op.47 (1905 published version);

CD 4
Rakastava, Op.14 (1894/1911, rev. 1912);
Fragments from a Suite for Orchestra (1914) / Predecessor of The Oceanides;
#Two Serenades for violin and orchestra;
#Two Serious Melodies, Op.77, for violin and orchestra;
#Six Humoresques for violin and orchestra (1917-18);
#Academic March, JS155 (1919);
March of the Finnish Jäger Battalion, Op.91a (1917, arr. 1918);

CD 5
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.96 - Valse lyrique (1919, orch. 1920), Autrefois (1919, rev. 1920), Valse chevaleresque (1921-22);
Suite mignonne, Op.98a (1921);
Suite champêtre, Op.98b (1922);
Suite caractéristique, Op.100 (1922);
Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakob de Julin, JS135a (1925);
Suite for violin and string orchestra, JS185 (1929);
Andante festivo, JS34b (1922, orch. 1938);
Processional, Op.113 No.6 (1927, orch. 1938);

CD 6
Appendix: Preliminary/Alternative Versions:
∞Tableaux 7/8 from Karelia, JS115, with simplified version of Tableau 7 (1893);
∞Impromptu for string orchestra (1893 preliminary version);
Concerto in D minor for violin and orchestra, Op.47 (1903-04 original version);
Rakastava, Op.14 (1894/1911 Paris version);
Two Serious Melodies, Op.77, for cello and orchestra;
No. 1 from Six Humoresques for violin and orchestra, Op.87 No.1 (1917 original version)

#Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
∞Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Jaakko Kuusisto
All other works: Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Soloists: Heikki Laitinen and Taito Hoffren, folk singers; Raimo Laukka, baritone (Karelia); Leonidas Kavakos, violin (Violin Concerto); Dong-Suk Kang, violin (Serenades; Serious Melodies; Humoresques; Suite for violin and string orchestra); Jaakko Kuusisto, violin (Humoresque No.1, original version); Marko Ylönen, cello (Serious Melodies)

Includes previously unreleased recordings with Lahti SO under Osmo Vänskä of: Karelia Suite, Op.11; Romance in C major for string orchestra, Op.42; March of the Finnish Jäger Battalion, Op.91a (1917, arr. 1918); Suite mignonne, Op.98a; Suite champêtre, Op.98b; Suite caractéristique, Op.100; Autrefois from Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.96; Menuetto, JS127 and the following world première recordings: Processional, Op.113 No.6 (1927, orch. 1938); Rakastava, Op.14 (1894/1911 Paris version); Tableaux 7/8 from Karelia, JS115, with simplified version of Tableau 7 (1893); Impromptu for string orchestra (1893 preliminary version) 

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