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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 vocal texts.
Reviewed in surround sound

Two masterpieces and three attractive fillers is a typical programme for an orchestral disc of Sibelius. Here we have – arguably – the most original of his works in Luonnotar, and the greatest of them in Tapiola. The first is a tone poem for soprano and orchestra, with a text taken from the creation myth that opens the Finnish national epic the Kalevala. If there was music before there was a world, surely this is what it sounded like. Tapiola concerns the mighty forest god Tapio, and completes the concentration into ever more powerful shorter spans of the seven symphonies. It might be the reason there was never an eighth symphony. When you can say this much within eighteen to twenty minutes where is there to go?

The much-vaunted Norwegian soprano sings Luonnotar, which is a taxing task. She acquits herself well, especially at the outset, when she is excellent in the runic chanting type of vocal writing that Sibelius even used instrumentally (think of the cello opening to the 4th Symphony). As the piece progresses from the incantatory to the incandescent, she is less idiomatic than the various Finnish singers who have recorded the work, and who make more of its text. Also Gardner, though convincing enough and generating a good response from his orchestra, does not convey quite the same power heard on earlier versions.

Soile Isokoski with Järvi (DGG 1996) or Segerstam (Ondine 2006, also an SACD). Most Sibelians will tend to prefer the latter, for its valuable programme of Sibelius orchestral songs. Karita Mattilla’s fine account is on her disc of orchestral songs of Grieg and Sibelius, with the CBSO and Sakari Oramo (Warner 2004). Mrs Sakari Oramo, Anu Komsi, has performed this work over a hundred times, and incomparably well on the two occasions I heard her live, in Lahti and London. But her fine recording, with Oramo and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra is rather buried on a disc called “Coloratura”, a wide-ranging recital showcase for her talents (a BIS SACD from 2012) where you hear her Queen of the Night and in Glière’s Concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra.

Gardner’s Tapiola is again a successful account, while suffering something of the same sense of failing to release all of the work’s elemental power. I liked the swift swaying of the opening pages, and there is a place for not lingering too long over the score (Gardner’s timing is 18:02). There is some fine playing, especially from the Bergen strings, but ultimately I felt I would be quite safe wandering in this forest, which does not brood savage dreams or weave magic secrets, as the score’s inscription warns. Berglund (also swift at 18:08) in Bournemouth does that (Warner 1972), but so does the slower (19:20) Segerstam in Helsinki (Ondine 1996, with the Four Legends), and the much broader Karajan (DGG 20:12 in 1965, 20:13 in 1984). Even if you are a Karajan-phobe, this might still be worth investigating, as amongst the greatest early admirers of Karajan’s Sibelius was Sibelius.

The rest of the programme has lower stakes perhaps, placing fewer demands on musicians and audience, and the attractive incidental music from Pelléas och Mélisande is given a beautiful performance, with the additional benefit of Lise Davidsen’s singing of Mélisande’s “Three Blind Sisters” song, usually given in its purely instrumental guise. The Bergen strings again excel in the Death of Mélisande and in the three-movement Rakastava for strings, triangle and timpani. As for the early Spring Song, the excellent booklet notes concede it is not very distinguished or very Sibelian, but Mahler’s notorious dismissal of it as “kitsch” goes too far. The Bergen players make the most of it here.

The SACD engineering from Chandos sounds excellent on a surround system, and if the programme appeals then none of the performances of these five works actually let the release down. But there is much distinguished competition in the two major items, and this review, and the earlier MusicWeb one, have suggested rivals to consider. And what Sibelian wants only one Tapiola and Luonnotar?!

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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