Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Sound of Sibelius:-
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 (1893) [13:46]
The Wood-Nymph, Op. 15 (1894/1895) [21:37]
The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 No. 2 (1893, rev. 1897 &1900) [9:10]
Lemminkäinen’s Return, Op. 22 No. 4 (1896, rev. 1897 &1900) [6:24]
Spring Song, Op. 16 (1894, rev. 1895) [7:34]
Valse triste, Op. 44 No. 1 (1903, rev. 1904) [4:22]
Scene with Cranes, Op. 44 No. 2 (1903, rev. 1906) [4:55]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899, rev. 1900) [7:57]
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. November 2006, May 2007, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
BIS SACD 1645 [78:13]

This disc comes with a very good pedigree – Vänskä and the Lahti orchestra are well represented in BIS’s mammoth Sibelius Edition – but for me the real revelation was hearing these forces in the music of Kalevi Aho. The playing there is first rate, as are the readings, and all recorded in excellent sound. The compilation under review is a mix of old and new material; The Swan of Tuonela, Lemminkäinen’s Return and Finlandia are newly released, the rest culled from the Sibelius Edition. On paper it makes a good ‘taster’, offering newcomers a flavour of Sibelius’s early orchestral output, but given the forces involved it should appeal to seasoned collectors as well.

High-res audiophiles will be particularly interested in this disc, as these works aren’t particularly well represented on SACD. Past experience has shown that BIS recordings are among the best around, and the opening of the Karelia Suite will confirm that. But even though the martial timps and brass fanfares sound splendid the jaunty theme that follows lacks clarity and, as a result, the music doesn’t sparkle as much as it usually does. I’m not quite sure what’s happening here, but the orchestra sounds rather veiled in all three movements, only emerging from behind the gauze in tuttis. It’s certainly not an issue on any of the Aho discs recorded in the same venue.

That said, the playing is engagingly rough-hewn – no bad thing, given the polished veneer usually applied to these works – and that is probably the most attractive feature of this recording. At least Vänskä allows us to feel the grain of these works, the knots and whorls that are so often glossed over. There’s certainly a pleasing earthiness to the celebratory music of the Alla Marcia, which brings the suite to a rousing close.

The Wood-Nymph is the longest and most involving piece here. This tale of a young man led astray by elves and then seduced by a wood-nymph isn’t the gossamer creation one might expect. Instead, there is a darker, more elemental feel, which suits the orchestra’s playing style very well. There’s little evidence of veiling here, percussive thunder followed by quieter, more lyrical passages that quiver with barely suppressed eroticism. Indeed, the coda is positively orgasmic in both rhythm and intensity, the BIS engineers capturing it all in sound of spectacular range and weight. It’s not one of Sibelius’s best-known works – Vänskä only ‘rediscovered’ it in 1996 – but it really ought to be, if this performance is anything to go by.

The mythological element of Sibelius’s output is well represented by The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return, from the Lemminkäinen Suite. The eponymous swan glides through the black waters that surround Tuonela – the Finnish Hades – accompanied by some ravishing sounds from the cor anglais. Again, there is a thoroughly idiomatic feel to the playing of both orchestra and soloist, the bass a powerful, louring presence in the distance. It’s a gorgeous piece, well performed and stunningly recorded.

As for Lemminkäinen, the Finnish equivalent of Homer’s journeying hero, he returns to rediscover the pleasures and memories of his homeland in some of the most stirring music here. Indeed, this patriotism and pride feeds into Sibelius’s own preoccupation with national identity, which perhaps explains why these high-stepping tunes are presented with such boldness and splendour. There’s also more than a hint of the grandeur we hear in Finlandia, especially in the music’s closing bars. Vänskä draws propulsive playing from his orchestra, brass and percussion recorded with plenty of tingle and fizz. Another cracker, and a great demonstration track for hi-fi buffs.

Spring Song finds Sibelius at his most lyrical, but it’s not the sweet seasonal sketch its title might suggest. As always, Vänskä accentuates the grainier qualities of this music, although in Valse triste – the first of two pieces from the Kuolema Suite – he and the Lahti band sound as poised and elegant as one could hope for. The string playing is especially good, the orchestra really leaning into those waltz rhythms. The second piece, Scene with Cranes, is much more austere, chamber-like in fact; the distinctive bird-calls are well done, the engineers picking out every detail of this lovely score.

But it’s the big tunes that get the most play here, and Finlandia is one of the biggest. It’s as imposing as ever, even if the orchestra isn’t as focused or the brass as unanimous as elsewhere. But The Wood-Nymph is the most intriguing piece, that and the two Op. 22 selections the best recorded. Liner-notes and general presentation are up to the usual standards of the house and, despite minor quibbles, this remains a very worthwhile release indeed.

Dan Morgan