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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Luonnotar, Op 70 (1913) [8:50]
Tapiola, Op 112 (1926) [18:02]
Pelléas och Mélisande, Op 46 (1904-05) [25:43]
Rakastava, Op 14 (1893; reworked 1911-12) [11:55]
Vårsång, Op 16 (1894, revised 1895, 1902) (Spring Song) [7:45]
Lise Davidsen (soprano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2018/2021, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Finnish/English libretto
CHANDOS CHSA5217 SACD [72:51]

This is an attractive compilation of some disparate Sibelius works but many of the items here have already been very successfully recorded by distinguished predecessors so the competition is tough, starting with, for example, recordings of Tapiola from the likes of Karajan, Beecham, Berglund, Segerstam and Vänskä, Pelléas och Mélisande from Beecham (who omits By the Seashore), Okku Kamu and Karajan again, and two recordings of Luonnotar by Soile Isokoski with Neeme Järvi and Segerstam respectively.

Lise Davidsen has a darker, richer voice than the silvery soprano usually associated with this music – closer, in fact to Mari Anne Häggender on the old 1984 BIS Sibelius recital album - but she has no trouble with the high-flying passages. Her enunciation and inflection of the text from the Kalevala creation myth are not quite as vivid as some but she seems at ease with the language and has clearly been well coached. I don’t think she achieves the other-worldly ambience created by Järvi and the young Isokoski, who, as a native Finn, has the advantage over Davidsen of knowing exactly how to enhance the impact of the Finnish text and makes a more delicate, ethereal job of the repeated “Ei!” (No!), and Järvi makes more than Gardner of the drama inherent in this extraordinary, sui generis tone poem. However, Segerstam brings a lighter touch than both Gardner and Järvi in his 2005 recording, again with Isokoski still in best voice, and on balance that remains my favourite version, especially as it is in the best-balanced, fullest sound.

Sibelius’ last masterpiece Tapiola has enjoyed many fine recordings but none approaches the mystery, majesty and sonority of Karajan and the BPO in their 1984 digital recording, the broadest and best of his four recordings. I always feel that when reviewers take refuge in phrases such as “indefinable magic” it suggests that they are too lazy or incompetent actually to identify or analyse what it is which makes a performance so special, but it is hard to pin down just how and why there is such sweep and menace to Karajan’s vivid depiction of the spirit of the forest, as it is described in the preface to the English language edition of the score:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

Gardner and the Bergen orchestra do a fine job but cannot rival the shimmering sheen on the strings in the searching central section or the depth of sonority the Berliners create in the swirling string passage which leads into the coda, which is first terrifying, then concludes on a serenely grand B major chord. Gardner’s vision of Tapiola is lighter and more domesticated; his account is a full two minutes faster than Karajan’s and there is a certain lack of wildness in the storm sections; the Bergen horns do not whoop in the minatory fashion of the BPO’s nor does Gardner use the power of the perfectly gauged pause and the impact of finely graded dynamics as effectively as Karajan. The genius of Karajan’s recording is no better illustrated than in the mesmerising last two minutes when that transition from minor to major is effected. Gardner achieves nothing like the same thrill. I repeatedly played this new recording in case I was missing something about his conception and in the end had to conclude that it is merely good, but lacking in atmosphere.

Pelléas och Mélisande might not be the greatest music Sibelius ever wrote, being only short, incidental pieces of incidental music, but it is charming, interesting and badged all over with Sibelian tropes; I especially like the imposing opening number, "At the Castle Gate", a close cousin to the chorale in Finlandia. It’s nice, too, that Gardner has Davidsen sing the lyrics to The Three Blind Sisters (track 7); all the other versions I have just use the instrumental version. I hear more lilt, warmth and affection in Karajan’s and Kamu’s Mélisande, however, and in general see no particular reason, other than the participation of a soprano, to switch my listening allegiances.

The two youthful, but subsequently revised, works which conclude this album are somewhat rarer. Being smaller scale, they better suit the transparent textures of the Bergen orchestra and their luminous, lyrical material sounds very like Grieg, with that underlying skein of anxiety and melancholy so typical of Sibelius. I like the delicate, faintly agitated motif which runs through The Path of his Beloved in Rakastava (The Lover) for string orchestra and am particularly struck by the bold simplicity of the tone poem Vårsång (Spring Song), a piece previously unknown to me – even if, according to the notes, Mahler pronounced it to be the “usual kitsch...Disgusting Stuff!”

There are undoubtedly aspects of this release which are attractive, both in terms of novelty and performance, but for the very best recordings of the three major works, the collector will need to look elsewhere – mainly towards Karajan.

Ralph Moore




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