Barbirolli conducts Sibelius’s First (1966)

This is a short review from about 1999 that I’m republishing as I revive and freshen up my original Inktroduction to Sibelius’s First Symphony. Originally available as a single CD with the Third Symphony, released under EMI’s Classics for Pleasure budget line in 1996, the recording is now available as part of a “Sibelius Edition” of all the stereo recordings Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) made for EMI with the Hallé Orchestra. All good men and women, these. Details of the recordings at the bottom. Let’s do the review first: Continue reading Barbirolli conducts Sibelius’s First (1966)

Klami Whirls and his Violin Concerto

Cover Illustration by Peter Schoenecker. This article was first published in 1998.


Uuno Klami
(1900 – 1961)  is considered by many as the finest 20th century, non-contemporary, Finnish composer after Jean Sibelius. Significantly, Klami’s musical style is far different from his illustrious contemporary (and in a sense, predecessor). Rather than attempt to succeed Sibelius’ “organic” methods or soundworlds, which have never been matched, Klami’s music is much closer to what most listeners would term “20th century”. At the same time, it is highly original and very atmospheric. In some cases, as in his well-known Sea Pictures, it is all atmosphere. Continue reading Klami Whirls and his Violin Concerto

Sibelius: Piano Music Vol.2 (Gimse/Naxos)

Even though it was never a medium he was comfortable with, it doesn’t have to mean the music Sibelius wrote for solo piano cannot be enjoyed.

This second volume in Naxos’ survey of Sibelius’ piano music begins with the lovely collection of Six Finnish Folk-Songs and Ten Bagatelles. The former consist of tiny tiny pieces, as short as 55 seconds, none longer than two minutes – all quiet and melancholy ([1] My beloved), or tranquil and utterly sweet ([6] Wedding memories), warmly and evocatively played by Gimse here, with much grace and natural flow, such that all six seem to flow into each other without a break (which might have been the intention). When one thinks of images of Sibelius in his old age, or perhaps when one thinks of some untouched, quiet spot of nature, this music speaks volumes. Continue reading Sibelius: Piano Music Vol.2 (Gimse/Naxos)

Kullervo – 1972 and 1985 Recordings by Berglund

Kullervo, op.7
recorded in 1985.
EEVA-LILSA SAARINEN mezzo-soprano
JORMA HYNNINEN baritone
State Academic Male Choir of the Estonian S.S.R. · Helsinki University Male Choir · Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND

EMI Matrix CDM5 65080-2
[71:46] mid-price. Libretto included.


Kullervo, op.7
WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING (1970)

RAILI KOSTIA soprano
USKO VIITANEN baritone
Helsinki University Male Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND
Also includes: The Oceanides, Karelia Suite, Scènes historiques – Suite No.1, Tapiola, Finlandia, Serenades Nos.1 & 2.

EMI Forte CZS5 74200-2
[147:55] budget-price. Libretto NOT included.

At long last, EMI has reissued the legendary world-premiere recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony, made in 1970 by Sibelius scholar and conductor Paavo Berglund. Though the music was composed and first performed in 1892, over one hundred years ago, Sibelius withdrew it from the world, and only allowed the third movement to be performed in celebration of the centenary of the publication of the Kalevala in 1935, when the composer himself was 60 years of age.

Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund
Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund

Since then, Sibelius’ choral symphony was not performed in its entirety until 1958, the year after his death. It was only finally recorded for the first time ever in November 1970. Paavo Berglund (left) recorded it again in June 1985 with EMI Records, in a much-acclaimed performance. But it is this 1970 world-premiere which many Sibelius fans have been waiting for.

Now, in what seems to be a double-dose of celebration for these fans, EMI has not only released John Barbirolli’s beautiful cycle of the symphonies, but also this – I must confess at having scoffed and cursed at EMI’s many strange policies regarding the circulation of their recordings. For now, I must issue my heartfelt thanks.

So how does this “new”, older, Kullervo compare to the 1985 recording? As with Berglund’s Bournemouth cycle of the symphonies , it is at least revelatory, to say the least. The performance sounds matured and well-prepared – which is a major point considering that this is the world-premiere recording of a rarely-encountered piece of music at that time. On first impression, it is also clear that the 1985 recording is much better, with finer details and crisper colours; the strings are richer, the brass mellower, the rhythms and figures sharper.

In terms of interpretation, both versions exhibit very fine stature, with the later one sounding more sure of itself, not surprisingly – as if it has grown up. This is not to say that the earlier recording is unsure, but rather it has a greater impression of exploration – which is exactly what the classical recording world was doing then with Kullervo.

And what an impression it must have received – 78 years after its debut performance, Berglund’s reading does more than ample justice to this majestic score. The impact of the unraveling introduction, the tragic-heroic brass outcries, the pathos of the singers, the chanting chorus – surely, it is not hard to imagine the impact which Sibelius wrought on the Finnish world of music during his time.

The heart of the work, Kullervo and his Sister, receives fine performances on both recordings. The choral entry on both are fascinating. The later 1985 version has more kick, more energetic drive, sharper-toned strings, even more heroic atmosphere. But listening to the 1970 version, I find it refreshing in its certain youthfulness, its smooth delivery backed – on both recordings – by the foot-tapping pulse of the bass line. At the same time, the relatively inferior 1970 recording only brings into sharp contrast the details of the 1985 version. In any case, what satisfies me about Berglund’s way with the work is how he brings so much underlying energy to the music, despite its fairly moderate pace and the simplicity of the devices Sibelius used to constuct the music. If like me, you should grow to like this music, I assure you, you will be memorising the first six lines of the chorus in no time – such is the heroic momentum of the Helsinki University Male Choir (and company).

The baritone employed in 1985, Jorma Hynninen, is a highly experienced Kullervo. With a much darker voice, his rendition is somewhat more “Wagnerian” in style, certainly more dramatic and dynamic. However, Usko Viitanen’s contribution to the world-premiere is quite excellent, sung with much emotional power and sincerity. His is a more noble Kullervo, perhaps, more meditative. His anguish at the realisation of his incestuous deed has a tragic dignity; but in Hyninnen, the sense of horror mixed with guilt is stronger, the emotions of the story more visceral.

The soprano part of Kullervo isn’t exactly a particularly “visual” experience, consisting quite a bit of “wandering”. It’s emotional message is either underplayed or subtle, depending on your perspective. The main chunk, in which the sister reveals that her father is the same as Kullervo’s, simultaneously describes both her contented youth and her admission of guilt – The part is rather hard to pull off satisfactorily if only because Sibelius’ musical-emotional dynamics here are rather subtle.

Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901)

Of the sopranos on record, Raili Kostia gives an adequate reading in 1970. But Eeva-Lilsa Saarinen’s interpretation in 1985 is more multi-dimensional, depicting the scenes more distinctly. In the passage where Kullervo’s sister defiantly rejects him in fast, semi-stuttering fashion (“Päästa pois minua tästä”), Saarinen’s jittery reading is more natural than Kostia’s rather more rigid, almost straight-staccato rendition.

One interesting difference is in the final chords – the earlier version is actually much more angry and defiant of tone, which I find much more appropriate to Berglund’s smoother, less-sharp 1985 interpretation. In any case, both orchestras in both records are absolutely splendid. However, in terms of vocal soloists, the 1985 version is superior.

Berglund’s 1970 rendition of the fourth movement, Kullervo goes to War, is absolutely spectacular stuff – the volatile energy and pure living imagery the Bournemouth musicians conjure is a splendour to behold – watch out for the brass, how they fanfare at each other with pinpoint staccato and confidence; or the collective chirps of the woodwinds, the fluttering winds – this so much makes me want to ask Sibelius what he was picturing in his mind when he wrote this. This is an all-out amazing journey all Sibelians must hear, right up to the shattering trumpet blasts of the heroic conclusion (don’t miss that!). The best Kullervo goes to War I’ve ever heard.

By contrast the later version of this movement is taken slower – 10’01” versus 8’52”. The pace is thus slower, and the old recording even matches the newer one in sound quality. Without a doubt, in this case, the earlier 1970 performance wins hands down.

Kullerov, Kalervo’s offspring,
Grasped the sharpened sword he carried,
Looked upon the sword and turned it.
And he questioned it and asked it,
And he asked the sword’s opinion,
If it was willing to slay him. …

“Wherefore at my heart’s desire
Should I not thy flesh devour,
And drink up thy blood so evil?
I who guiltless flesh have eaten,
Drank the blood of those who sinned not?”

The Kalevala
excerpts from Cantos 35 & 36

The finale, Kullervo’s Death, is spectacularly well-performed in both recordings. The 1970 version, however, has more emotional depth – I find myself sympathising with it more even as in the past I have sympathised most with Berglund’s 1985 version. It seems as if, as we follow the two recordings towards the end of the music, Berglund’s 1970 performance shows more and more of its true mettle.

In the final analysis – the 1985 version is a better recording, has better soloists; but the 1970 version has stronger conclusions; in both cases, orchestral support is beyond reproach – these are two fantastic orchestras at work here, and Berglund deserves to have both recordings lauded.

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. Continue reading Coronation and Conferment

Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 4 & 5 (Naxos)

Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Symphony No.5 in E flat major, op.82

Iceland Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554377 (Details)
[69:19] budget-price

An original Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

* * * * *

This is the fourth disc of Sibelius from Petri Sakari and the Iceland Symphony, on Naxos. This Nordic team has so far shown a penchant for daring playing, confident sweep and cutting, finely etched music-making. The results have been exemplary, though not perfect. Sometimes, the “go for it!” helter-skelter style does not pause enough to smell the roses, but at other times, the same high energy treatment produces startlingly impressive results. There are, for example, many passages of great beauty to be found in these recordings, including here, and also many admirable and lively bursts of energetic playing.

Sibelius as painted around 1911
Sibelius as painted around 1911, in between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

In the Fourth Symphony here, we get to a good start, with a long, brooding introduction of the well-known tritonic theme. Sakari and the Icelanders can be quite the experts in sustaining long musical arguments – here in the Fourth (and later in the first movement of the Fifth) they do so. The solo cello has a rather bright tone, which is an uncommon occurrence with performances of this work. It is very evocative, like the last shafts of sunlight at twilight. The first movement is given a cool and concentrated performance, with the sense of unity well-sustained. On a more abstract level, my impression is that this performance has more “light” than “dark” – it isn’t quite as solemn as some other interpretations.

Sakari handles shifts of moods in the Allegro molto vivace with good sense, which also makes his transition between the second and third movements seamless. Subtlety to detail and underlying drama ensures also that the ending of this Allegro is as abrupt as it is enigmatic. Osmo Vänskä’s account on BIS is however even more fluid in feeling, much more fine – rather like a sheet of ice next to the Icelander’s jagged landscape.

This fabulously icy sound of the Icelanders is employed to great effect, and as before, the brass of this orchestra is superb (try ending of first movement of No.5). Overall, Sakari’s hand over pacing and tempo changes is very sensitive and unfussy. His direction is clean, interpretations satisfying. Although sometimes the playing sounds a bit detached, there is drama, anxiety, light and darkness, hope and ominosity – all that the Fourth expresses.

I greatly enjoyed the magnificent performance of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony – it has great flow, excellent stringwork – the detailed, unfussy ostinato also heard in the Fourth, ample orchestral body and visionary splendour displayed in the original second movement.

The slow movement is played with ample detail, but sounds just a little bit detached. The phrasing is just a little bit too rigid, lacking a sort of “lyric curvaceousness”. The interpretation does not “smile” enough… it is just somewhat too serious. In fact, come to think of it, it might be fair enough to say that the movement is too much like the way the Fourth is played. Technically though, this is not a bad reading – there are many details to be heard.

What is not satisfactory is the finale – it is quite literally unimpressive. The introduction sounds tired, compared to other versions, and though the pacing of the horns in the “Swan Hymn” is good, they sound just a tad weary. The difficult punctuating phrase from the double-basses sound very ugly here (granted, this isn’t the only performance where this is a flaw). Sakari plays down and does not exploit the majestic modulation into C major in the famous climax of the “Swan Hymn” – there is neither the profuse surging energy of Vänskä’s reading, the Olympian splendour of Segerstam’s Chandos recording or the noble grace of Berglund on Royal Classics. When the passage is over, one does not feel as if the modulation has taken place at all. When one compares this to more joyous, magnificent interpretations – it is difficult to recommend this Fifth, if only because the “Swan Hymn” is such a crucial point with collectors of this symphony. Thankfully, the conclusion is magnificent, bringing back the atmosphere and orchestral power that this team displayed in the first movement. The final five hammer blows are very nicely spaced out.

In conclusion – it is a little unfortunate that of the seven movements on this disc, the most popular one is the least satisfactorily performed. As I have suggested, if you are specifically looking for a good version of the Fifth (in particular of the finale), I do not recommend this. But I like this Fourth – the icy, and somehow uniquely “light” approach and evocative performance is very interesting. Add to this the powerful delivery of various parts of the Fifth, this disc remains recommendable.

Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 1 & 3 (Naxos)

Symphony No.1 in E minor, op.39 (Inktroduction)
Symphony No.3 in C major, op.52

Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554102
[67:35] budget-price

From the volcanic land of Björk Naxos has launched its new (the second after Adrian Leaper’s, also good) cycle of Sibelius Symphonies. For a company not well-known for repeat recordings of the same music, I can only say this bodes well for the composer – and what a smashing start this is!

Led by their new and able Finnish director Petri Sakari, the Iceland Symphony (who have previously recorded some Sibelius for Chandos) provide very tightly etched and sharply responsive account of the music, combining precision which never becomes rigid, with strength of conviction and energy. The result is readings which feel confident and highly charged but never over-indulges, as heard in the first and third movements of the Romantically-inclined Symphony No.1.
Continue reading Icelandic Sibelius – Symphonies 1 & 3 (Naxos)

Icelandic Sibelius – Symphony No.2 & Tempest Suite No.1 (Naxos)

Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
The Tempest: Suite No.1, op.109/2

Iceland Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Petri Sakari

NAXOS 8.554266 (Details)
[68:08] budget-price

An original Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

What I like about this reading of the Second Symphony is its tightly driven energy, the no-nonsense blazing brass of the first movement, coupled with confidence and power. Sakari has an admirable measure of the surge and the ebb, the flow and the outburst of the symphony. The Andante has no lack of atmosphere; the opening pizzicato “walk” is not as mysterious as some other accounts, but makes up for it with the aforementioned sense of confidence, and attention to detail without being too deliberate. I enjoyed the slow unveiling of the woodwind episodes after the brassy tumult, the chilly rock-hewned power of the Icelandic brass (what gorgeous trumpets – and listen for their diminuendi), and the solemn-heroic build towards the end.

The pacing of the Vivacissimo is excellent, neither too fast or slow. At 6:17 it is on the long side, but I enjoyed the slick drama that the Icelanders churn from the score. Even more impressive is the bridging to the finale – very well done indeed, without a wisp of too much hesitation or too little breathtaking anticipation, the Icelanders slip into the rising theme with calm nobility. The trombones pulsate nicely, the woodwind pedals are leveled just right in the background, while the trumpets thrust their fanfare with flawless magnificence in both their big appearances. The horns deserve mention too for making good their support.

The swirling storm that leads to the final coda is not exactly the most powerful, most stormy one I’ve heard. Though I am impressed by the work put in by the woodwinds at the top of the score, the overall picture is slightly wanting in that final ounce of relentlessness, of that feeling of heroic defiance that gives this work such a patriotic ring. Nevertheless, this is not a bad reading at all. In fact, the coda itself is satisfyingly majestic, with brass rising even higher and louder than before, blazing above each other in triumph. The full D major glory of the final chords are savoured with great relish.

* * * * *

The coupling of the First Suite from The Tempest is a little odd and unusual, the work coming from the end of Sibelius’ known orchestral output, whereas the symphony is among his first. It makes a great contrast, especially the magical aura of The Oak Tree (and Ariel’s Song), to which the chilly sounds of the Icelanders do good justice to, if not as sorcerous as Segerstam’s account on Ondine.

The Humoresque is ably done, though I’ve heard more liquid playing from other clarinettists. The orchestra sings Caliban’s Song with ample colour and drama, loudmouthed and lurid (It’s quite hard to get this piece wrong, so far in my listening experience); and is then repeated gruesomely in the middle of the Scène. I greatly enjoyed the pulse and flow of this performance of The Harvesters. The little details are really nice – the quiet snare drum, the field of floating strings, the harp, flute – all add up to a very picturesque tone painting.

Strangely, in The Storm, the recording (or is it the conductor?) gives great prominence to the brass, somewhat downplaying the turbulence of the strings. At other times, the lower brass (as in that rising series of chords) is drowned. In all, a committed performance, but sonically the result is too blocky, too opaque. The Naxos sound isn’t really very transparent, which may be at fault.

My recent “live” encounter with some of this music has made me realise the extent that contrast plays a part in The Tempest. One particular example is the Intrada-Berceuse. Here, I think Sakari doesn’t quite put in enough thrust into the shattering blows of the Intrada, though it is not ineffective. The gentle Berceuse itself receives a fine interpretation, with strings sounding timid and restrained, almost emasculated.

Overall, excellent performances of the symphony and most of the Suite and a worthy successor to the previous release of Symphonies Nos.1 and 3 (reviewed here). If you need a recording of No.2, you can safely invest in this, which comes with the bonus of The Tempest (if incomplete). But if the latter interests you more than the former, go for the Ondine/Segerstam and the complete theatre score recorded on BIS (detailed here).