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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Fire On The Island - Choral music
track listing below review
Monica Groop (mezzo), Jorma Hynninen (baritone), Folke Gräsbeck (piano), Harri Viitanen (organ)
Dominante Choir/Seppo Murto
rec. Nya Paviljongen, Grankulla, Finland, October 2009, January-February and April 2010; Helsinki Cathedral, February 2010
BIS BIS-CD-1889 [64.55]

Experience Classicsonline



 
These recordings were made for the BIS complete Sibelius Edition, that company’s mammoth and laudable undertaking to record every note that the composer ever wrote. They are now collected together and made available on a single disc, consisting mainly of arrangements for mixed choir of pieces originally written for male choir, fragments from incomplete works and small occasional pieces. As such they will be invaluable for those who already have many of the works in their original form and wish to investigate further. The title of the disc is taken from the third of the Six songs originally written for male choir in 1895.
 
It might be thought that these must inevitably be scrapings from the bottom of the Sibelian barrel, but there are some really good things here. The arrangement for mixed choir of Rakastava is an improvement on the original version for male voices - it was only subsequently that Sibelius reworked the piece for string orchestra; and the setting of Ernst von Knape’s poem Men from land and sea is a veritable tone-poem originally written for a choir of 1300 voices. Even better is Song of my heart, the last of the Op.18 songs for male choir, which sets a poem by Aleksis Kivi with heartbreaking accents which sound even better with mixed voices.
 
We also find Sibelius here working in languages other than his usual Finnish and Swedish. Some of the Contrapuntal exercises use Biblical texts in German, the Italian folksong arrangements are set in that language, and we also have Sibelius’s one attempt at setting an English poem in Sarah Doudney’s Listen to the water mill. The last is an incomplete work where the harmonies have been constructed from two different manuscript sources, but they sound authentic enough. However the piano accompaniments for the Italian folksongs are taken from other publications of the period - the original parts by the composer are lost - and they don’t sound very convincingly like those that Sibelius himself would have provided.
 
Some of the other pieces here are short extracts from larger works which Sibelius published separately at various times during his life: among these The landscape breathes makes one wish it were longer. The late Introductory Antiphons were written for a commission for a volume of liturgical melodies, but one cannot be convinced that Sibelius’s heart was really in them. He very rarely set religious texts - there are some not very inspired hymns in this collection - and the words don’t seem to find much of a response from him.
 
Andrew Barnett, in the long and informative booklet notes that one naturally expects from this source, tries also to make a claim for the student exercises that the composer completed during his studies with Wegelius as “fully worthy to stand alongside Sibelius’s published choral works.” Well, up to a point. It is clear that the pieces were written as academic exercises in contrapuntal technique without any real consideration for performance. The choral parts in The gates of morning and evening, which Barnett admits are “cruelly demanding”, go beyond reasonable comfort zones for sopranos and tenors. Sibelius may sometimes have made heavy demands on solo singers - in Luonnotar for example - but he was usually a model of consideration in his choral writing. Also lacking here is the sense of response to a text which was always part of the armoury of the mature Sibelius.
 
Nevertheless there is enough on this disc to attract the interest of specialists and non-specialists alike, and the singing of the amateur choir is beyond praise. They remain unfazed even by the stratospheric writing in the contrapuntal exercises, and they get plenty of variety into the strophic repetitions of the hymns and homophonic melodies which we find here from time to time. Their pronunciation of the various languages seems faultless, although in the English language piece they persistently pronounce the long English u sound in words like to and useless like the elongated Finnish uu. It hardly matters, and one is amazed to discover that the members of the choir are largely engineering students or graduates; in any other country one would expect results like this only from fully-fledged professionals. Groop and Hynninen sing their occasional isolated lines superbly, although Hynninen sounds just a little strained in the Antiphons. Full texts and translations are provided.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

BIS Sibelius Edition

Track Listing
Rakastava (1893, revised 1898 for mixed choir) [7.13]
Six songs for male choir, Op.18 (four movements arr. mixed choir) [7.45]
Busy as a thrush (1898) [1.17]
To the Fatherland (1899, arr. mixed choir 1900) [2.03]
Italian folksong arrangements (1897-98, piano part reconstructed) [4.51]
Listen to the water mill (1906, fragment) [3.06]
Not with lamentation (1905, version with later corrections) [1.28]
Men from land and sea, Op.65a [5.22]
A child is born unto us (1929) [2.52]
Hail, O princess (1896, arr. choir 1913) [1.18]
The landscape breathes (1899, arr. choir 1913) [0.39]
May the hymn of honour now resound (1897, arr. choir 1913) [1.46]
Contrapuntal exercises (1887-90) [14.46]
Three introductory antiphons (1925)24 [5.56]
Hymn from Finlandia (1899, arr. mixed choir 1948) [2.08]

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