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CD Review

Jean Sibelius

Works for String Orchestra

  • Romance Op. 42 (1903)
  • Impromptu Op. 19 (1898)
  • The Lover
  • Suite Champêtre Op. 98/2 (1921)
  • Humoresques #3 & 4, Op. 89 #1 & 2 (1917)
  • Andante Festivo (1922)
  • Canzonetta Op. 62a (1910)
  • Suite Caracteristique Op. 100 (1922)
Virtuosi di Kuhmo/Péter Csaba
Ondine ODE830 53min
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I believe it was the great philosopher Mae West who said, "Too much of a good thing is wonderful." While undoubtedly true in some areas of human endeavor, this principle hardly applies to the string orchestra music of Sibelius. These miniatures can be quite enjoyable on their own, but they tend to become monotonous when played back to back, as they are here. Sibelius, it should be noted, never intended them to be presented this way. Most were dashed off to fill out one concert or another devoted to his longer, more serious works. Today record producers generally use them the same way – as filler. Ondine's program, however, brings together everything that Sibelius produced for this medium, except his arrangement of the scherzo from the string quartet (for which there was plenty of room on this disc). Also included are the two Humoresques of Opus 89 scored for solo violin and strings. Only a few of these pieces were originally conceived for string orchestra. The remainder are transcriptions of works for piano, string quartet, or, in the case of The Lover, male chorus. Most will be immediately recognizable as chips off the master's workbench, but the gypsy elements in Humoresque 3 and the very brief Viennese waltz that begins the oddly titled Suite Caracteristique will probably surprise even this composer's greatest admirers.

Perhaps the most striking piece in this collection is the grand Andante Festivo of 1922, but Csaba simply plows through it, missing its inherent nobility and grandeur. (Sibelius himself conducted a stunning performance this work during a 1939 radio broadcast, but that unforgettable recording is no longer available.) On the other hand, Csaba is quite effective in the more intimate selections, such as the lovely Canzonetta, Romance, and Impromptu – all of which deserve to be better known. The Virtuosi di Kuhmo is a small, but more than capable band of talented young musicians, all college-aged to judge from the booklet photo. However, a larger ensemble would have been preferable for several selections, especially the Andante Festivo. Ondine's distant microphones and the cavernous Kuhmo Church, where the recording sessions were held, combine to produce a sonic mush that quickly becomes tiresome. If you must have all this music on a single disc, this is your only option for now. Better performances are available, but only if you're prepared to invest in several full-priced CDs.

Copyright © 1998, Tom Godell