There is a reason, of course, why the popular Karelia Suite is a “Suite”. Its origins go back to 1893, when the Viipuri Student Corporation at the Imperial Alexander University arranged a fund-raiser event in aid of education in the Viipuri province, in western Karelia, Finland. The idea was to foster Finnish culture at this border area near Russia. Finland then was still under the dominion of the Tsar, and to put it simply, the Finns didn’t like that. The entertainment soirée took place at the Town Hall on 13th November 1893 and its highlight was a series of tableaux depicting scenes from Karelian history. Think of them as theatrical stage scenes, with decorations, props and music, all provided by Finland’s best artists. Early MTV.
Providing the music was Sibelius (above), who had recently gained fame with the premiere of his Kullervo Symphony the year before. The event drew huge public support, and many were turned away at the door. Unfortunately, most of the music was apparently drowned out by loud conversation. Only the “Ballade” drew some attention. Sibelius even remarked that the apparent success of his music was probably more due to nationalist sentiment. Always self-critical, the composer later destroyed parts of the score, in particular those of the lower strings. Working from manuscripts and a previous reconstructive attempt in 1965 by Kalevi Kuosa (now GM of the Turku Philharmonic), eminent Finnish composer Kalevi Aho (b.1949) completed this restoration in 1997.
Karelia begins with the comparatively unknown Karelia Overture, which Sibelius also published independently as Op.10 (The suite is Op.11). It is distinguished by themes of gently driving nobility, but also evocative of scenic landscape. The familiar Intermezzo march melody is heard in a rustic version for flute (piccolo?) and bassoon. I have never relished this episode as it sounds sissy-ish compared to the trumpet version of the Karelia Suite. But to my pleasant surprise, it is treated here with a measure of dignity, with a lightly articulated tambourine accompaniment, not sounding like the disruptive jolly gigue I remember it as.
This is the best account of this rare overture I have ever heard, easily showing the supreme musical intelligence of the Lahti performers (left). Just listen to the natural flow with which they bring back the opening theme at the end.
Tableau 1 depicts a Karelian home where two traditional singers perform a runic melody. A unique bonus if you have never heard this traditional Finnish artform. Accompanied by plucked strings (imitating the Finnish kantele) and a wind choir characteristic of Sibelius, the piece is a prayer to the Finnish chief god Ukko and a greeting to the forests of Tapio. There is a simple and earnest rusticity to the music, which is all the more disrupted by the violent news of impending war in the region. Be warned of the sudden cymbal crash.
Tableau 2 “The founding of Viipuri Castle (1293)” is probably the most precious gem of this disc. Here, Sibelius demonstrates his gift for unfolding musical splendour with the breathtakingly majestic hymn that dominates the piece. Played on the lower strings, it represents monks praying at the founding ceremony. The music simply swells into grander and ever grander form. This is one of the movements whose missing lower string parts Aho has restored. The result is, by my reckoning, a faithful restoration in and homage to the spirit of the composer, and is very convincing. Just listen to the achingly rich singing of the Lahti strings, and the massive paean of glorious brass at the end!
Tableau 3 depicts “Narimont, the Duke of Lithuania, levying taxes in the province of Käkisalmi” (rather uninspiring considering the music). The first part is tinted with anticipation, the brass echoing the main theme from the following “Intermezzo” of the Karelia Suite. It is performed here splendidly in the context of the Karelian tableaux. The distinctly different tambourine part includes a trill which I found very refreshing.
I have always felt that the Ballade, whether in terms of its name or its musical character, was always meant to be sung. At long last, its vocal part has now been restored! The work, forming Tableau 4 “Karl Knutsson in Viipuri Castle (1446)”, is now even more impressive. The melancholic song of yearning, Dansen i rosenlund, is wistfully accompanied by a solo horn, creating a heartbreaking vision of distant longing. Unlike the cor anglais version in the Suite, the melody/verse is played three times. Hence the greater length of this Ballade (9’09”) – but all the more to savour the bard’s heart-stirring song.
Tableau 5 depicts how Pontus De la Gardie, Swedish high commander in the war against Russia, bombarded the town of Käkisalmi with canons in 1580. The moods and sequences of the music made me think of it as a kind of Sibelian 1812. In fact, incendiary effects were used on stage during the premiere performance! “Tableau 5½” is the well-known Alla Marcia from the Suite, once called the “Pontus de la Gardie’s March” (let’s stick with Alla Marcia…). Like the Intermezzo, some chords are voiced differently (as Aho notes), but the music is largely unchanged.
Tableau 6 depicts “The Siege of Viipuri” in 1710. The music begins quietly, but gathers through rushing string passages (like the Fifth Symphony) into a slow brass theme. Not much “action” actually occurs, as the piece gradually, if excitedly, dwindles away. The key cello and bass parts are completely lost/restored, and I think this may have taken its toll on the music.
Tableaux 7 and 8 illustrates “The reunion of Old Finland with the rest of Finland” in 1811. The scene’s climax is the noble appearance of the Finnish national anthem, Maamme (“Our Country”), which was in fact written later (than 1811) in 1848. It begins with a distant, gentle oboe melody. This gains momentum but gives way to a sad theme on strings. The pace quickens in anticipation before the Finnish orchestra bursts grandly into their stately anthem, playing with well-deserved pride. Too bad the notes don’t provide the text!
But BIS’s ample notes do include full summaries of the history of the Karelian region, the Karelia Music, the story for each tableau, as well as Aho’s detailed notes on the restoratory process.
The incidental music to the play Kuolema is the source of the famous Valse triste (“sad waltz”), which depicts a dying woman dreaming of a dance. As she awakens, the dance seems to enter reality and intensifies until the figure of Death in the form of her husband arrives to claim her. The disc provides both the original version used in the play’s production (strings only, with an abrupt ending) and the expanded independent version of 1904 (which is tracked after the Kuolema music). Both are finely played, without undue indulgence. BIS provides a full synopsis of the play.
The Valse is followed by Paavali’s Song, which has a recitative character and admittedly does not quite warrant repeated listening outside its theatrical context. (Paavali is the son of the deceased woman.) Elsa’s Song is an evocative piece set in a summer forest scene, with only “Eilaa, eilaa” as its “text”. The spirit of the scene is apparently “closely related to Finnish national romanticism” (from notes). Some of its material and the following scene of The Cranes were reworked in 1906 as the Scene with Cranes. The two-note motif representing the call of the cranes was originally scored for violins, but is much more effective on the clarinets of the independent Scene. As Paavali’s home burns down in the fifth scene, he remains inside reflecting on his life, and the ghost of his mother comes to fetch him.
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä is without doubt the most important musical force behind the on-going Sibelius renaissance. Their performances have a natural Sibelian spirit which no other orchestra has demonstrated. Wedded to the crystal-clear yet wholly natural sound engineering of BIS’s production, what you have is the Sibelius “dream team”. This is BIS’s 42nd volume in their Complete Sibelius Edition, of which the Lahti SO unfortunately came late into, but so far they have gathered nothing but the highest praise both in Finland and abroad.
As a sound recording, incidental music of this nature does not make for extended continuous listening for entertainment, taken as a whole. (What I would do to see a staged production of the Karelia tableaux…). If you are only interested in the Karelia Suite or the Valse Triste, you might want to consider looking elsewhere. But for those who are genuinely interested in or curious about this facet of Sibelius’ art – there are treasures to be found.
I cannot help but feel that Sibelius will be unhappy to know that music he has partly suppressed for artistic reasons has now been made available to the public. This applies too to the original version of the Fifth Symphony (BIS 800 or 863), which is in my opinion a great revelatory experience. Listeners to this music should perhaps bear these considerations in mind, while taking this privileged opportunity to hear music almost lost to the world. Meanwhile, I’m going to listen to “The Founding of Viipuri Castle” again. And again. Again. And again…
Karelia – Complete Score (1893, restored by Kalevi Aho)
Scenic Music for a Festival and Lottery in Aid of Education in the Province of Viipuri. WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING
Kuolema, op.44 – Complete Score (1903)
Incidental music to the play by Arvid Järnefelt. Original theatre version.
WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING
Valse Triste, op.44 no.1 (1904)
From Kuolema. Revised concert version.
Includes vocal texts in Finnish and Swedish with translations in English.
Heikki Laitinen · Taito Hoffren vocals
Raimo Laukka baritone · Kirsi Tiihonen soprano
Lahti Symphony Orchestra · conducted by Osmo Vänskä