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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) [18:14]
En Saga, Op. 9 (1892, rev. 1902) [18:40]
Eight Songs (orch. Aulis Sallinen, 2015) [18:04]
De bägge rosorna (The Two Roses) Op 88/2 [5:40]
Sippan (The Anemone) Op 88/4 [1:31]
Dold förening (Hidden Connection) Op 86/3 [1:05]
Under strandens granar (Under the Fir Tres on the Shore) Op 13/1 [1:07]
Kyssens hopp (The Kiss’s Hope) Op 13/2 [1:11]
Hennes budskap (Her Message) Op 90/2 [2:35]
Men min fågel märks dock icke (But my Bird is Nowhere to be Sen) Op 36/2 [2:14]
Jägargossen (The Young Huntsman) Op 13/7 [2:41]
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano);
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. 2016, Helsinki Music Centre. DSD
Texts & English translations included
ONDINE ODE1289-5 SACD [54:58]

When the musical world celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius several recordings of his symphonies came to me for review. Among these I very much admired a filmed cycle of live performances of all seven symphonies by Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (review). Consequently, I was keen to hear the partnership again in this new Sibelius disc. It wasn’t until the recording arrived, however, that I realised that it included another 150th anniversary tribute to the Finnish master by Lintu and the orchestra.

The tribute in question is the orchestration of eight Sibelius songs which Lintu and the FRSO commissioned from Aulis Sallinen. The songs were intended for performance by Anne Sofie von Otter who here records them for the first time. Antti Häyrynen refers in the notes to “a cycle of songs” but I don’t feel that the term is applicable. There are no thematic musical links between the songs, nor do the chosen texts contain any narrative thread. In fact, what Sallinen set out to do was to clothe in orchestral colouring several of Sibelius’ less familiar songs and, as will be seen from the track listing, he included items from no fewer than five separate sets of songs.

It seems to me that Sallinen has done his work extremely well. Those who are deeply versed in the music of Sibelius may be able to spot instances where his scoring is unidiomatic but all I can say is that the results sounded highly convincing to me. One thing that particularly struck me was the restraint and delicacy with which several of the songs are scored. For example, there’s a pleasing lightness to the orchestration of Sippan, as is entirely appropriate both to the words and the music. Dold förening is very delicate and the instrumentation is highly suggestive of water, which befits a song about two waterlilies. Under strandens granar, though certainly not the longest of the songs, feels quite big because the scoring ls fuller. This song tells the story of a Nix – a water being that is half-human and half-fish – who spies a little boy by the water’s edge and makes off with him, subsequently returning to capture the boy’s mother also. The orchestration is authentically colourful and Anne Sofie von Otter tells the story very well. Sallinen has added a brief instrumental introduction, lasting no more than twenty seconds, to Men min fågel märks dock icke. Here Miss von Otter brings out the melancholy of the music very successfully.

Throughout the entire set of songs Anne Sofie von Otter sings very well and very persuasively. She is expertly accompanied by Lintu and the FRSO. These seem to me to be very successful orchestrations of the songs and I was completely convinced; Sallinen has added a new dimension to them. It’s very good that they have been recorded because this will bring Sallinen’s scorings to a wider audience.

The other two works on the programme are much more familiar. The pieces have been shrewdly chosen so that we hear a fairly early work, one of the composer’s earliest successes, and a towering masterpiece from very near the end of Sibelius’ creative career.

The performance of En Saga begins promisingly with an air of quiet mystery: “once upon a time”? Lintu’s performance soon picks up momentum and a couple of things are apparent. One is the wide dynamic range of the recording and the other is the satisfying way in which the very important bass drum is reported. I had the sense that this is an objective interpretation: Lintu doesn’t engage in narrative rhetoric but, rather, the music is allowed to speak for itself. There’s an example of the dynamic range of the recording just before 8:00 where the string writing is very quiet indeed: one has to strain to hear it. Another such example comes at 12:06 – 12:53 where the short passage of hushed stillness is very effective: here the orchestra puts across the spare textures and suspenseful nature of Sibelius’ writing most effectively. There’s excitement in this reading to but those pasages are always very well disciplined. Some may find Lintu’s account to be not as full-blooded as they would like but I must say that I found it very stimulating. The long close (from 15:40) is dominated by the quietly expressive clarinet playing of Christoffer Sundqvist; he’s excellent as Lintu brings En Saga to a gentle, satisfying close. Incidentally, several times I’ve seen the solo clarinettist credited in a recording of this work but the principal viola has a number of very important solos to play and rarely gets credited. It’s good to see acknowledgement made of Ilari Angervo on this occasion.

At the very start of Tapiola it crossed my mind that the music was not being presented in as gaunt and forbidding a way as I’ve heard in some other performances. However, I soon came to feel that this initial impression was less than fair. As the piece unfolds Lintu distils a potent atmosphere and his orchestra delivers the stark sonorities of Sibelius’ writing very effectively. The recording is beautifully balanced and proportioned so the FRSO is heard to optimum advantage. This is a focused and concentrated performance in which the bleak grandeur of the Northern landscape is laid out before us and the chilly winds swirl around. At about 14:40 the storm starts almost imperceptibly – the dynamic range of the recording again – but the icy winds soon grip us. Perhaps this disciplined performance lacks some of the elemental power that one gets from some other conductors, such as Beecham or Koussevitzky but it is still potent in its own right. This is a very good, scrupulously balanced and controlled performance.

This is a fine Sibelius disc. The two familiar pieces come in expert performances and all admirers of Sibelius will be intrigued, I’m sure, by the Sallinen orchestrations, which are valuable additions to the Sibelius discography. It’s a pity, though, that the disc offers such short measure. There would have been ample room for another piece, such as The Oceanides.

I listened to the disc as an SACD and admired very much the clarity and refinement of Ondine’s recording though I have drawn attention to the dynamic range as I know some listeners dislike too wide a range. The notes by Antti Häyrynen are useful though I found it quite irritating that the songs are not discussed in the order in which they appear on the disc.

John Quinn



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