Coronation and Conferment

I walk into HMV after a long absence, and I see not one but two Sibelius CDs classifiable under the “Unusual But Not Earthshaking (Semi-)World-Premiere Stuff from BIS/Ondine/Finlandia”. It didn’t take me long to decide to try them.

On this beautiful Ondine production is an amiable concert programme consisting of an “overture”, the Academic March, two large-scale cantatas, a short but heavenly interlude, and a rousing conclusion. The menu is unusual, and the pleasure derived great.

The “concert” begins with the Academic March, which is in the line of moderately-paced atmosphere-setting pieces, rather than a military quick march. One imagines, with no difficulty, of graduates walking into the hall to this music (I had Shostakovich’s Festive March for my ceremony). This is a very pleasant piece, which glows with pastoral joy, rather than fireworks and pomp. A luscious opening to the disc.

Conferment Ceremony, Helsinki UniversityThe main dishes are the two cantatas, both written and performed at the Helsinki University in the 1890s. Both are full of the expected patriotic exhortations.

The Cantata for the Conferment Ceremony of 1894 was performed on May 31 of that year – I wonder if any graduand then realised what an honour they were being granted! Jean Sibelius himself had been a student (of law and music, and later only music) of the University, and later one of its teachers. In spring 1894, he was appointed as acting music teacher, whose duties that year included the composition of this conferment cantata.

The work is celebratory in a gentle, formal way; ceremonial rather than festive, honouring rather than exalting. The work originally had three movements, but the solo soprano part of the last has been lost. As a result, it is only performed here as a two-movement affair. The author of the notes, Jukka Tiilikainen, adds however that the third movement may not have been a conclusion to a three-movement cantata, but rather a separate movement for the ceremony honouring the “Jubilee Masters” (Masters who had received their degrees 50 years ago). The case is further supported by the fact that the second movement – a 16-and-a-half minute Allegro assai-Maestoso (alla marcia) for choir, orchestra and soloists – ends in triumphant splendour.

This world-premiere recording of the two movements, amounting to 24 minutes of music, is led by the powerful voices of Soile Isokoski and Jaako Kortekangas. They sing with golden voice and glorious vibrato, which when combined with the choir and orchestra in the final bars, truly makes one wonder how majestic it must have been to graduate at the Helsinki University on 31st May, 1894, just over a century ago; to ascend to new levels of enlightenment amidst the voices of Finnish heroes, heroic feats and songs of legends: Henkemme ilmaksi tieto onpi tullut “Knowledge has become the air we breathe”.

Sibelius in 1900
Sibelius in 1900

The music itself is simple and direct, with no pretensions to high intellectualism.  This is Sibelius (right) before his “peak”. The musical themes are cycled through the work, without much development. If it resembles anything, the duet work between the soloists are reminiscent of Kullervo.

In my opinion, if a university asks you for a conferment cantata, you give them a conferment cantata, not an exercise in tritonic development. So listeners who can’t stand good composers composing something “lesser” be warned.

The libretto by Kasimir (Lönnbohm) Leino is a typically Romantic, patriotic, god-praising text, celebrating the virtues of knowledge and love, nationhood; in common Nordic tradition it also mixes in a tribute to nature and further combines national mythology in the form of the Kalevala hero Väinämoinen defeating the evil Louhi with his magic.

The Coronation Cantata of 1896 seems a little ironic, considering that it was written to commemorate the coronation of a Russian, no less than Emperor Nicholas II, Grand Duke of (the then duchy of) Finland and former Chancellor of the university. It has not been performed since its first performance at the coronation. Once again, it is a fairly moderate-tone work, not exactly bursting with energy. A whiff of Tchaikovsky can be detected, the same comment one often hears in reference to Sibelius’ First Symphony, written two years later.

The text of the Coronation Cantata is not exactly subtle: it sings of the Finns’ hope and joy at the new beginning for the Emperor, as they salute the dawn of a new day, a new era. Most interesting is this line: “In the security of justice/ A strong people grow./ The happiness of your people / Will be your best reward.” Finlandia began singing its patriotic hymn in 1899, and Finland achieved independence in 1917.

The 17-minute work is in two parts, scored for choir with orchestra. The music is solemn but optimistic, with lightweight themes of which the most memorable is that which opens the two movements. This being the world-premiere, there is no alternative for comparison (we wait for BIS) – my gut feeling is that the choir in this recording could probably sing with more fervour, and the score itself made a little more transparent (it sounds rather Brahmsian-cloudy here). Nevertheless, this is an adequate performance.

Sandwiched between the two cantatas is an unusual performance of the beautiful Andante Festivo for strings and timpani ad lib. What is unusual is that it’s the fastest version I’ve ever heard on record – only 3’44”. Segerstam apparently took this pace to reflect the fact that the piece is still played in Finland today on formal occasions, and with respect to that, he chose a slight quicker tempo as an alternative to the long, hymn-like style more associated to this work.

Leif Segerstam
Leif Segerstam

At first, I was skeptical, but then suitably impressed: despite this tempo, Segerstam has actually preserved the emotional pace of the music – it sounds just as beautiful here, compared to slower renderings.  Though, the spirit and atmosphere is brighter, more celebratory, rather than melancholy. In fact, many key lines feel exactly the same as slower versions – ultimately, this is a triumphant demonstration of the conductor’s conviction and leadership; and another very beautiful performance of this highly underrated piece.

The disc ends with Finlandia. Again? But wait… this is a really good performance! The fast sections are exciting, the orchestral colour splendid, the brassy outbursts explosive. Segerstam takes a marginally slower pace than most: the introduction for example, glows with tragic heroism.

But the highest distinction of this performance is the “Finlandia Hymn” – rarely, if ever, have I heard it played with such religious beauty, such spiritual tranquility, such heartfelt steadfastness. The orchestra truly hymns in reverently hushed atmosphere, drawing a glowing sky of choral colours as the strings take over from woodwind at 6:43, the violi (?) sound like a human choir, I had to double check to make sure no choir was involved! And listen to those horns!  This now, surely, is one of the best versions (overplayed or not) of this work.

A very interesting and enjoyable release for any faithful Sibelian.

Academic March
Cantata for the Conferment Ceremony of 1894
Andante Festivo · Coronation Cantata*
Finlandia, op.26/7 (Original “train” version)
*world premiere recordings

Soile Isokoski soprano · Jaakko Kortekangas baritone

Finnish Philharmonic Choir
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

conducted by Leif Segerstam

Includes vocal texts in Finnish and Swedish with translations in English.

[58:46] full-price

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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