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 ( My beloved), or tranquil and utterly sweet ( 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)
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
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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
An original Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™
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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.
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.
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)
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.
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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).
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 ONDINEODE 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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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.
Alongside Sibelius’ a capella choral output are the choral-orchestral works, both which still suffer much undeserved neglect. I mean, if you like Kullervo – you ought to try these as well. The most obvious thing to do for Sibelius was to incorporate the choral hymn of Finlandia into the orchestral tone poem – and yet, I only know of two recordings, one with a mixed choir on Ondine (Sibelius Cantatas ODE 754-2) and this committed performance with the Laulun Ystävät Male Choir, under Järvi’s very experienced Sibelian conducting. But more on that later… Continue reading The Origin of Fire – Works for Male Chorus & Orchestra