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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Complete works for mixed choir
Track-listing at end of review
Kaia Urb (soprano), Jenny Carlstedt (mezzo), Tuomas Katajala (tenor), Arttu Kataja (baritone), Matleena Seppänen (triangle), Tuomo Lassila (cymbals), Ari-Pekka Mäenpää (bass drum), Folke Gräsbeck (harmonium, piano)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Heikki Seppänen
rec. 17-19 June, 23 August 2014, Järvenpää Hall, Finland
A 24-bit DXD recording
Pdf booklet with sung texts included (Finnish and English)
Reviewed as a 16-bit download from eclassical.com
ONDINE ODE1260-2D [51:11 + 52:40]

This year we celebrate the 150th birthday of two giants of Nordic music, Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius. Recently I had the pleasure of reviewing a Dacapo collection of Nielsen’s Songs for choir and a while back I welcomed a fine recording of Sibelius’s Masonic Funeral Music. The standard of singing in both releases is exceptional, and the recordings do the music proud. Most important, these issues underline – in their different ways – the robustness and variety of these composers’ vocal writing. Sibelius never strayed far from choral music; indeed, as Sakari Ylivuori points out in his detailed liner-notes one of the composer’s very last creations – composed in 1954 – was a setting for children’s choir of Joululaulu (A Christmas Song).

The forces assembled here are new to me, although it doesn’t take long to realise these Baltic singers are really rather good. They are directed by the Finn Heikki Seppänen, who started out as an organist but moved on to choral and orchestral conducting. He strikes me as a sympathetic and scrupulous musician who draws clean, well-blended sounds from the EPCC. Like so much of Sibelius’s choral output the first item, Rakastava (The lover), was originally written for male-voice choir. It’s a demure little piece, enlivened by some lovely interplay between the men and women. Ensemble is always crisp, although the sound is apt to harden in the higher registers. Otherwise the recording is well-focused, and the occasional soloists rise out of the mix with ease.

The baritone Arttu Kataja is particularly memorable in this opener and in the ten songs from the 1897 Promotional Cantata on CD2. Beginning with his Op. 18 – five songs of which are chosen here – these works embrace all manner of moods and subjects, although there are times when I would have liked a little more animation from these singers. To his credit Seppänen controls dynamics with great care and he has a real feeling for musical shape; now if only he showed the same flair when it comes to vocal nuance and colour this would be an exceptional set.

That said, Seppänen and the EPCC are never less than accomplished. I warmed to their renditions of the three Latin school songs of Carminalia, given here in the a cappella version and those with harmonium and piano. The instruments are nicely balanced and Folke Gräsbeck’s playing is suitably spirited. However, the rival accounts from the Jubilate Choir conducted by Astrid Riska (BIS-CD-998) are livelier and more full-bodied. Different balances affect one’s perception of the music-making, but even allowing for BIS’s bolder, more forward presentation Jubilate’s performances communicate far more readily than the EPCC’s do.

I see from the booklet that this is a 24-bit DXD recording, so I’m a little surprised that Ondine decided to release it as a vanilla CD and download. Perhaps if it had been offered as an SACD and high-res download the sound might be airier and slightly less fatiguing in the treble. I have to say the BIS recording, made in 1996/7, is much more to my liking; I feel the music is better served as well, as the BIS team capture a sense of immediacy and ardour that eludes the Ondine crew. If you sample Volume 11 of BIS’s Sibelius Edition – a 6-CD set devoted to the composer’s choral music – you’ll find the same applies there too.

As a rule complete sets – whether two discs or six - are best sampled in small doses if the content is not to seem too samey. The ten songs that Sibelius reworked from his Promotion Cantata of 1897 make a good starting point; this is a rather lovely work in which the vocal soloists play a pivotal part. Also, there’s a splendid sense of gravitas here; I just wish the treble weren’t so tiring, for the female soloists are clear-toned and wobble-free. Riska’s soloists don’t supplant Seppänen’s, but her forces add a much-needed air of jubilation to the proceedings.

The Christmas songs and those written for children at home and abroad are pleasing enough, but as so often in this set there’s a slightly ‘grey’ element to the choir’s delivery that dulls the charm of these pieces. As for the two Finlandia-hymni settings I’d expected them to be more stirring than this; by contrast the Jubilate Choir will give you goose bumps, such is the passion and power of their singing. Not only that, it’s so much easier to discern the magnificent central tune from Sibelius’s orchestral blockbuster, Finlandia.

If you’re looking for all Sibelius’s works for mixed choir in one affordable place this Ondine release is a decent and obvious choice. However, the singing, although polished, is a little short on drive and character. For strong, idiomatic accounts of these and the rest of this composer's choral works – with recordings to match – that BIS box is the one to go for.

Accomplished, but undercharacterised; the 16-bit sound is a tad fatiguing, too.

Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei
 
Track-listing
 
CD 1 [51:11]
Rakastava (The lover), JS 160c (1893/1898) [6:24]
Sortunut ääni (The voice now stilled), Op. 18 No. 1 (1898) [1:23]
Venematka (The Journey by boat), Op. 18 No. 3 (1893/1914) [1:44]
Saarella palaa (Fire on the island), Op. 18 No. 4 (1895/1898) [1:13]
Sydämeni laulu (Glade of Tuoni), Op. 18 No. 6 (1898/1904) [2:55]
Min rastas raataa (Where the thrush toils), JS 129 (c. 1898) [1:10]
Carminalia, JS 51c (1898)
Version a cappella:
1. Ecce novum gaudium (Behold a new joy) [0:48]
2. Angelus emittitur (An angel is sent out) [0:28]
3. In stadio laboris (In athletic strife) [0:37]
Version with harmonium:
1. Ecce novum gaudium (Behold a new joy) [0:54]
2. Angelus emittitur (An angel is sent out) [0:28]
3. In stadio laboris (In athletic strife) [0:38]
Version with piano:
1. Ecce novum gaudium (Behold a new joy) [0:51]
2. Angelus emittitur (An angel is sent out) [0:30]
3. In stadio laboris (In athletic strife) [0:40]
Kotikaipaus (Homesickness), JS 111 (1902) [1:16]
Isänmaalle (To the Fatherland), JS 98a (1899/1900) [2:05]
Hur blekt är allt (So faded everything is), JS 96 (1888) [0:27]
När sig våren åter föder (When Spring is born sgain), JS 139 (1888) [0:30]
Tanke, se hur fågeln svingar (Thought, see how the bird swoops), JS 191 (1888) [1:09]
Ensam i dunkla skogarnas famn (Alone in the dark forest’s clasp), JS 72 (1888) [2:13]
Ack hör du fröken Gyllenborg (Ah! Listen, Miss Gyllenborg), JS 10 (1888) [0:29]
Työkansan marssi (The march of the labourers), JS 212 (1893) [2:15]
Soitapas sorea neito (Play pretty maiden), JS 176 (1893–94) [1:17]
Juhlamarssi (Festive March), JS 105 (1894/1896) [2:52]
Aamusumussa (In the morning mist), JS 9a (1898) [1:44]
Uusmaalaisten laulu (The song of the men of Uusimaa), JS 214a (1912) [2:29]
Kallion kirkon kellosävel (The bells of Kallio Church), Op. 65b (1912) [2:20]
Drömmarna (Dreams), JS 64 (1917) [1:28]
Män från slätten och havet (Men from plain and sea), Op. 65a (1911) [5:38]

CD 2 [52:40]
Lauluja sekakuorolle 1897 vuoden promootiokantaatista (Songs for mixed choir from the 1897 Promotion Cantata), Op. 23 (c. 1897-1898)
1. Me nuoriso Suomen (The journey continues) [2:31]
2. Tuuli tuudittele (Wind, cosset our boat) [2:09]
3. Oi toivo, toivo, sa lietomieli (Hope, that state which so consoles me) [1:10]
4. Montapa elon merellä (Many pitfalls await us on life’s road) [0:53]
5. Jalo toimi ja korkea tieto on vaan (Noble deeds and wisdom) [1:56]
6a. Soi kiitokseksi Luojan (Let our sweet song of thanks) [1:26]
6b. Tuule, tuuli leppeämmin (Blow softer now, breeze) [2:36]
7. Oi Lempi, sun valtas ääretön on (O Love, you genial child of God) [2:12]
8. Kuin virta vuolas (Like a surging stream) [2:24]
9. Oi, kallis Suomi, äiti verraton (Precious Finland) [1:19]
Den 25 Oktober 1902 (October 25th 1902), JS 60 [2:08]
Den 25 Oktober 1902 (October 25th 1902), JS 61 [2:10]
Ej med klagan (Not with laments), JS 69 (1905) [1:07]
Kansakoululaisten marssi (March of the Primary School Children), JS 103 (1910) [1:40]
Kantat (Cantata), JS 107 (1911) [2:53]
Nejden andas (The landscape breathes), from Op. 30 (1899/1913) [0:31]
Terve Ruhtinatar (Hail, O Princess), from Cantata JS 104 (1896/1913) (0:50)
Three Songs for American Schools, JS 199 (1913)
1. The sun upon the lake is low [0:45]
2. A cavalry catch [0:49]
3. Autumn song [0:43]
Koulutie (The way to school), JS 112 (1924) [4:36]
Skolsång (School song), JS 172 (1925) [0:45]
Den höga himlen och den vida jorden (The lofty heav’n), JS 58a (1927) [2:34]
On lapsonen syntynyt meille (A child is born unto us), JS 142 (1929) [2:21]
Joululaulu [En etsi valtaa, loistoa] (A Christmas Song), Op. 1 No. 4 (1909/1942) [2:13]
On hanget korkeat nietokset (High are the snowdrifts), Op. 1 No. 5 (1901/1942) [1:48]
Finlandia Hymn in F major (from Op. 26) (1899/1948) [2:00]
Finlandia Hymn in A flat major (from Op. 26) (1899/1948) [1:51]