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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 (1893-96, rev. 1897, 1900 & 1939) [46:19]
Spring Song, Op. 16 (1894, rev. 1895) [9:03]
Suite from Belshazzar's Feast, Op. 51 (1906-1907) [15:55]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2018, Watford Colosseum, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20136 [71:34]

Sakari Oramo has something of a pedigree when it comes to the music of his fellow Finn, Sibelius. During his time as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1998-2008) he set down a complete cycle of the symphonies, which was issued by Erato. I haven’t heard those recordings but I do recall reading a number of reviews that praised them. Sadly, I don’t believe they’re currently available. In 2015 he marked the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth with a Proms performance of the early Kullervo, which was warmly reviewed for Seen and Heard by Rob Barnett. Not long ago the BBC Music Magazine issued that very performance as a covermount CD (Vol 25, No 12) and when I heard the recording it confirmed that Rob’s enthusiasm was fully justified. It’s worth seeking out the disc from the magazine’s back numbers service.

That experience of hearing Oramo conduct early, Kalevala-inspired Sibelius made me keen to hear his account of the Lemminkäinen Suite. Oramo reverses the order in which the two central movements are played, placing 'The Swan of Tuonela' third. I don’t know if many other conductors have taken a similar line – in my experience the published order has always been used – but Anthony Burton tells us in his useful notes that Oramo has at least one precedent to follow and it’s far from negligible: the composer himself played the movements in this order when conducting the Suite’s premiere in 1896. The revised ordering seems to me to work perfectly satisfactorily and, placed thus, ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ offers us some moments of repose between the dark drama of ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ and the excitement of ‘Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey’.

I was favourably impressed with Oramo’s approach to Lemminkäinen from the start. ‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island’ is strongly projected and I got a powerful sense of narrative from the music. The performance itself is very vital and colourful; while all sections of the BBCSO distinguish themselves, I was particularly taken with the contributions from the brass. The passages which depict the maidens’ dancing are nimbly and energetically done – here. as elsewhere in the Suite, the woodwinds are very agile. Oramo conducts a taut performance, exerting real grip on the proceedings. The stormy weather in which the hero departs the island wells up strongly; this is just one of several passages during which the dull thudding sound of the bass drum is an important presence, superbly captured in the recording.
‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ also seems to me to have a strong narrative thread. The performance is dark and dramatic. The power and drama of the reading is especially in evidence when those dissonant, baleful brass chords ring out. The strength of the performance is enhanced by the recorded sound, which has genuine presence. There’s presence of a very different kind in ‘The Swan of Tuonela’. Here, the icy atmosphere of the subterranean lake is evoked tellingly and across its waters glides the swan, plaintively voiced by the outstanding cor anglais player, Alison Teale. (Rightly, she and the three solo string players, all excellent, are credited in the booklet.) Oramo leads a very fine performance indeed; the doleful processional near the end (from 6:08) is very well handled. Finally, ‘Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey’ is excitingly depicted. Oramo builds up terrific momentum during the hero’s ride and the BBCSO responds with plenty of drive in their playing. Enhanced by a very fine Chandos recording, this is as fine a recording of the Lemminkäinen Suite as I’ve heard.

The composition of Spring Song took place during the period when Sibelius was writing Lemminkäinen but the style is very different. Anthony Burton rightly draws attention to the difference between the fragmentary textures of Lemminkäinen and the hymn-like character of Spring Song. Oramo and his sonorous orchestra bring out the simple gravitas of the music and invest it with a noble tint. It’s very well done.

The Belshazzar's Feast suite originated in ten numbers of incidental music that Sibelius wrote for a production of a play by his friend Hjalmar Procopé. The composer paid Procopé the compliment of conducting the music at the first night in November 1896. He then reworked some of the music into this four-movement suite for small orchestra. It’s fascinating to hear music by Sibelius with a Middle Eastern tint to the orchestration in the opening ‘Oriental March’ The scoring of ‘Solitude’ is remarkable for its restraint. Against the gentlest of string accompaniments, subtle viola and cello solos are heard. The players are, respectively, Norbert Blume and Susan Monks, both of whom had earlier made telling contributions to ‘The Swan of Tuonela’. In this instance I really admire the poetry they bring to this section of the Belshazzar's Feast music. ‘Nocturne’ is similarly subdued. This movement benefits from an eloquent solo flute (Michael Cox). Cox and his colleague, the clarinettist James Burke, are very much to the fore in the concluding ‘Khadra’s Dance’. This is a delicate dance, though it features a rather more sinister central section in which the clarinet takes the lead. Belshazzar's Feast may not be top-drawer Sibelius but it displays immaculate craftsmanship. The present performance, full of finesse, really does it justice.

This is a very impressive disc. Sakari Oramo proves himself to be an expert Sibelius interpreter and he draws magnificent, playing from the BBC Symphony, who are, collectively and individually, alive to all the nuances in the music yet can turn on the power when required. The Chandos engineering team have given them terrific sound, which adds greatly to the listening experience.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ Dan Morgan

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