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CD Review

Jean Sibelius

Tone Poems

  • Karelia Suite, Op. 11
  • Luonnotar, Op. 70
  • Andante festivo
  • The Oceanides, Op. 73
  • King Christian II, Op. 27
  • Finlandia, Op. 26
  • Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49
  • Night Ride and Sunrise, Op. 55
  • En Saga, Op. 9
  • Spring Song (Vårsång), Op. 16
  • 4 Excerpts from Kuolema
  • The Bard, Op. 64
  • Tapiola, Op. 112
  • Lemminkäinen Suite "4 Legends from Kalevala", Op. 22
Soile Isokoski, soprano
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Deutsche Grammophon 477552-2 3CDs 213:59
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A real affinity for Sibelius.

In the days before recordings, there used to be something called theater (or incidental) music, played by live orchestras employed by, appropriately enough, theaters. Plays in the tonier venues were seldom given without music, in fact. Much of Sibelius' orchestral music belongs to this category, among other reasons, because he needed the money to support himself and his family and theaters paid. Fortunately, many of his theater projects actually coincided with what inspired him, mostly Finnish folklore.

The early stuff, like the Karelia Suite (1893), tends to conventional song and dance forms. However, even here, one notes a composer who naturally thinks symphonically. Sibelius' music makes one ask, "What comes next?" His phrases tend to end with an invitation to extension, like the tenon of a Lego tile. However, even scores written before, say, the First Symphony (1899), like En Saga break out of standard forms. For me, Sibelius writes "jagged" music, music that sounds either like it steals in out of nowhere or as if someone made a long, diagonal rip in the score to the end. If you ever saw the half-buried Statue of Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes movie, that's my image. Even the phrases of the popular chorale of Finlandia don't end, so much as they break off – torsos of music. The fully-mature work, like the concert aria Luonnotar (1913), runs even more idiosyncratically. For example, Luonnotar reaches an almost violent level, as it describes a spirit giving birth to the world, but in no time at all ends quietly, sparely, and bleakly. There's no "rounded" summing-up. It ends when it ends, in the way it has to.

Listening to this orgy of Sibelius, I was struck this time by how often the image of the headlong ride fired his imagination. Pohjola's Daughter and Night Ride and Sunrise deal with this directly, but once you hear them, you immediately recognize the same kind of music in the symphonies and in other tone poems, like "Lemminkäinen's Return" from the 4 Legends. Indeed, I think of Pohjola's Daughter as something very near the center of Sibelius' musical imagination. However, none of these scores resembles the others all that much. Night Ride and Sunrise, for example, obsesses – in a way that anticipates somebody like Steve Reich – on a single rhythmic idea for much of its length. It's a wild piece, with odd screams and cries thrown in, something that still lets you appreciate the radical nature of Sibelius' art, even though so much of his music has become standard rep. The 4 Legends come from very early in Sibelius' career (he revised them around the time of the First Symphony). Some Sibelians, in an excess of enthusiasm, have considered them a kind of Eighth Symphony, which does the composer's actual symphonies a huge disservice. The Legends sometimes show traces of wobbly architecture (the third movement, "Lemminkäinen in Tuonela," especially). In some places, they seem cobbled together. However, here and there foreshadows of later work fly by – the Second Symphony in "Lemminkäinen and the Island Maidens," for example, or parts of Finlandia and even the Fifth Symphony – and "The Swan of Tuonela" certainly ranks as one of the composer's most beautiful musical images.

On the other hand, I've never been much of a fan of the "Valse triste" or much of the other Kuolema music. I do like the so-called "Scene with Cranes," a haunted little number. I think I may have bought one of the earliest recordings of it (it surfaced in 1973), when Berglund included it in his bombshell Kullervo (was it the recording première?) for EMI. Kullervo in fact turned me on to Sibelius' music.

The Bard (1913) strikes me as one of those diamonds in the composer's output perenially awaiting discovery. It always seemed to me of a piece with the world of the Fourth Symphony: terse, spare, enigmatic. The Bard delivers a huge punch in very few notes and not a lot of volume. One finds the same terseness, almost to the point of obsession, in the later Tapiola (1926), which (like Night Ride and Sunrise) wrings intensity from practically a single motive. The liner notes talk about minimalism. If so, it's pretty maximal minimalism, but one sees the writer's point. Sibelius pushes his idiom to do far more with much less than something like the Fifth Symphony.

I also discovered a piece new to me: the Spring Song – an early work, written in 1894 and revised for publication in 1902. The title led me to expect a little salon piece. However, the music proclaims a big personality, unexpectedly deep. Sibelius at one point subtitled it "The Sadness of Spring," but even that unfairly limits the music, which expresses a wide range of feeling. I find less sadness in it than rapt contemplation.

Beecham and Barbirolli represent for me Sibelius playing at its most exciting and insightful, but I can't deny that Järvi and his Gothenburgers have this music in their bones. Truthfully, this surprised me a bit, since I didn't care for their slapdash Grieg at all. In the Sibelius set, only the Tapiola disappointed me – too slow, as if pokiness meant profundity. The rest of it rocks. Järvi even made the "Valse triste" sound positively intelligent, investing it with the voluptuous intensity the Järnefelt drama demands. Sibelius makes nothing easy for his interpreters. Night Ride, for example, can easily bore you with its insistence. Järvi finds the overall arch of these scores. Järvi and his orchestra sweep along, and the DG sound – simultaneously full and clear – gives them something extra without faking them up.

By the way, this is a DG "triad": three CDs at some reduced price. I've seen the set listed at about $24.00 (US), and a quick tour of the Internet tells me I can get a new copy for $16.00, or a little more than $5.00 per CD.

Copyright © 2009, Steve Schwartz