CD Review: The Tempest, The Oceanides, Nightride and Sunrise

The Oceanides, Op.73. The Tempest, Suite No.1, Op.109 No.2
The Tempest, Suite No.2, Op.109 No.3. Nightride and Sunrise, Op.55

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam
ONDINE ODE 914-2 [69:25] full-price

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An original review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

The Oceanides (1914) inhabits an auditory realm that fuses the fundamental energies and pulses of nature with the kinetic and tonal resources of the symphony orchestra. It evokes the sea, from calm breezy moods to thundering gusts of tempests. But it is not seascape music of the Romantic variety; it is closer in spirit to the impressionism of Debussy. Yet, Sibelius maintains his own distinctive magic.

In the album notes, Timo Virtanen describes the tone poem as comparable to “a single breaker, slowly gathering force, foam forming on its crest and, on reaching its destination, quickly abating and sweeping the sand on the shore.” In it, one does not merely hear the sea as an observer, but is thrust into the being of the ocean waves. The massive orchestral climax in the work seems like nature herself heaving a breath, a living surge of terrifying ecstasy. In many of Sibelius’ works there is often a palpable sense of some primal force – nature herself, but also as if the music is driven by the ghostly energies of some ancient mythical memory. The music, typical of Sibelius, exists in multiple layers of material swimming over and under each other, like different sea currents on and below the water surface, weaving their myriad ways across the ocean.

Sibelius originally called it Rondo der Wellen – “Rondo of the Waves” on account of its rondo-like organic repetition of the thematic material. The work was premiered across the Atlantic Ocean in the USA, where Sibelius was invited to conduct his music in Norfolk. After conducting the rehearsals of the piece and before its actual premiere, the composer decided to change its name to Aallottaret – the “Spirits of the Waves”. The Oceanides was picked as the English name. It was under these titles that the tone poem reached the shores of the public on June 4, 1914.

Over a characteristic quiet timpani roll, the strings shimmer mysteriously with a rising and falling motif. Over this murmuring seascape, flutes flutter in with a tentative 2-note “chirp”. Immediately, the sense of distance, of horizon and expanse, is depicted. The sensation of slow but inexorable movement is undeniable, and also the feeling of something vast breathing… the flutes, without saying any word, immediately evoke not just the image but the sensation of seabirds soaring above the winds above the waves. Even the tiny turbulences which buffet their wings are portrayed in the way the flute “tune” skips and turns. The bubbling motifs seem to echo the sizzling water, the sunlight scintillating, glittering over the wavelet-faceted sea surface. After the wave breaks, the music dies down, returning to the calmness of the opening, as the sea gathers again to continue its journey.

Segerstam’s reading here opens with much quiet magic. I think nowhere have I been so taken by the opening of this rarely recorded tone poem. The Helsinki PO’s opening timpani pedal drone, with the rising and falling of the waves makes the perfect picture for the entry of the fluttering flutes. The progression of the waves proceeds with natural flow, like a subtle concentrated drama.

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This recording of The Tempest Suites is a triumph. Many movements which have escaped my full attention have suddenly got me now. The Oak Tree, highly respected by Sibelius scholars, evokes its ominous mysteries and colours with great atmosphere. The performance here is breathtakingly awesome – after the dark opening, the violins shimmer with magic as the flute rides in in slow motion, mysterious, almost intoxicated with enchantment. The orchestral accompaniment is incredibly atmospheric – glowing strings, looming contrabassoon and other strange sounds. Very impressive. Segerstam’s handling of the breathing lines is pure Sibelius. Even the harps have a peculiar tone that fits into the picture of sorcerous quiescence perfectly.

Near the end of Suite No.1 is the Entr’acte (originally titled “Rainbow Interlude”) which leads into Ariel’s Song. This begins mistily, with woodwinds humming quietly like some dissonant foghorn in the distance. Ariel’s pained song – “Full fathom five” – is evoked darkly; the gloomy wind ideas seem to sink deep into the waters as Ariel sings to Ferdinand of his father’s “death”.

Throughout these performances, it is the attention to the middle and lower lines which bring out so much in the music. Try also The Harvesters, with its hazy harmonic swirls in the background, the precise scoring for wind instruments, harp and distantly placed percussion. I am amazed by the Helsinki Philharmonic’s brilliant performance of this simple-looking, 2-minute piece; they’ve really turned it into an orchestral showpiece demonstrating balance and colour.

The Humoresque, depicting the entry of Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, is a light merry procession, snaky clarinet tune over pizzicato strings, with a dark edge of mischief (listen for the muted trumpets). This preceeds Caliban’s Song, a raucous swirling dance of sardonic darkness quite unlike Sibelius, which is another must-hear. The various sections are handled with dramatic presence and purposeful timing; the orchestra responds to their conductor brilliantly – and what a snare drum!

The music to The Tempest is full of dramatic contrast which takes a skilful conductor and a highly responsive (and not to mention well-rehearsed) orchestra to pull off. Here, Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic outdo all other versions I’ve ever heard. The “sequel” to Caliban’s Song is the Scene, also from Suite No.1 – listen to how the Helsinki Philharmonic once again makes the contrast between the pleasant dance of the opening and the Calibanesque middle section so natural. Such theatrical evil in the music!

The other notable example is the Intrada-Berceuse, where the dissonant and torrential cries of the Intrada connects to the beautiful lullaby of the Berceuse. In the latter, the violins of the Helsinki Philharmonic evoke fairy magic, creating an atmosphere of serenity drifting sensuously over the glittering, blossoming harp. The same strings conjure so many different colours and voices as they hum the compassionate lullaby of the Second Suite’s Intermezzo.

The Tempest music has more than its fair share of memorable tunes. In fact, it is the balance of the lyrical and the formal which fascinates me to no end. The faint gaiety of the Dance of the Nymphs is well-matched in the Helsinki Philharmonic’s readings of the two Songs as well as the sunlit joy of The Naiads. There is such a light, sylvan sense of happiness to these performances. The musicians also bring out the crucial innocence of the music for Miranda.

The Suites naturally find their roots in the original theatre version (reviewed here) – I like the original version of Prospero more, the reading here of the Suite version is marked with impassioned nobility, right to the end of the superb string diminuendo.

The showpiece of Sibelius’ Tempest music is the raging seastorm of the Overture, which unfortunately isn’t recorded here (but The Oceanides makes a perfect alternative if you think about it). The second Storm, however, is included in Suite No.1, essentially the Overture abridged. The storm music of The Tempest – the strings’ chromatic augmented fourths, the keening chords of winds, the humming, growling brass, the booming thunder of basses and lightningbolts of snare-drums – has been described as “the most onomatopoetic stretch of music ever composed”. Everyone I play it to blind inevitably hear the wind and sea in it. Bring your raincoat and preferably a strong chain for your ankles!

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Painting by Matthew Harvey
Painting by Matthew Harvey

Nightride and Sunrise is widely known as a depiction of a nocturnal journey ending in sunrise, as the title and the two-sectioned music suggests. Sibelius is said to have been inspired by such a vision.

Segerstam’s reading is expert and pointed, with much orchestral detail. Occasionally, the reading becomes a touch too “sharp”. Compared to say Neeme Järvi ‘s DG recording (453 426-2), it is somewhat harder in tone and less subtle. But mainly, I felt it wasn’t so attentive to the mood of anticipating the dawn. There is so much in this music which must make you anticipate, and hold your attention. Not the best version in terms of the spirit of the work, but very well-played nonetheless.

In the final analysis, this is a superb album. I’ve played it through a gazillion times in the last two months, enjoying first The Oceanides then marveling at the stunning performance of The Tempest. The compilation obviously pays tribute to a sense of progression and of nature in that. Beginning with the misty beauty of The Oceanides, we sailed into the magic realm of The Tempest and emerge victorious through a Nightride into glorious sunrise. A journey I shall definitely take again.

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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