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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Lemminkäinen Legends, Op. 22 (Lemminkäinen and the Maidens on the Island [15:56], The Swan of Tuonela [9:07], Lemminkäinen in Tuonela [16:19], Lemminkäinen’s Return [6:22]) (1895, rev. 1897, 1939) [47:44]
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 (1906) [13:43]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland, 2014
ONDINE ODE1262-5 SACD [61:40]

This is the second time I’ve had the privilege of reviewing a Sibelius disc on the Ondine label in this the composer’s 150th anniversary year. The first was a two-disc set of orchestral favourites with the Helsinki Philharmonic under Leif Segerstam that also included Pohjola’s Daughter. The tone poem, which Sibelius composed between his Second and Third Symphonies, is one of his greatest works and one of his most challenging to perform. Segerstam’s account was the best I had heard, but now Hannu Lintu has equalled him in this new recording. I listened to the SACD in two channels only, but even there the sound is something to behold. It is spacious and has tremendous depth but also clarity. At the same time it is a very natural sound so that the instrumental balance is what one would expect from a good seat in the concert hall. As to the interpretation, both conductors and their respective orchestras have different but equally valid approaches. Segerstam emphasizes the brass and his climaxes are overwhelming, whereas one is more cognizant of all the woodwind passages with Lintu. If anything, Segerstam is more epic and Lintu more lyrical with the work. I don’t want to make too much of these differences because there is really not that much in it unless one is listening to them side by side. The orchestras are first-rate technically and both have Sibelius in their collective veins.

The Lemminkäinen Legends, which make up the bulk of the disc, had a rather checkered history. Originally Sibelius planned to compose an opera in response to a competition organized by the Finnish Literature Society, according to Jouni Kaipainen’s informative notes gracing the disc’s booklet. Under the influence of Wagner’s operas, Sibelius began to plan his opera but before long understood the futility of the project and realized that orchestral composition was to be his forte. The opera, Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat), was to be based on stories from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. Instead, he used some of the music he had composed for it in the Lemminkäinen suite. The four orchestral Legends that comprise the suite were premiered in 1896 and received some harsh criticism in the press. Therefore, Sibelius decided to remove the first two pieces from public performance; he had reversed the order of the second and third legends initially. Only the The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return were published, even though the composer had revised the entire set in 1897. Finally, in 1937, in conjunction with the centenary of the Kalevala, all four Legends were heard again. Then in 1939 Sibelius made final revisions to the first two parts and changed the order of the middle movements with The Swan of Tuonela now placed second. While that movement has taken on a life of its own as one of the composer’s most popular works, the entire suite is attractive and has had a number of recordings.

My introduction to the work was with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on EMI. That account has stood the test of time, even though this new one is as well performed and considerably better recorded. From the very first chord, wonderfully played in tune by the four horns, this is a very promising version. The delightful woodwind passage (1:48-2:15) comes across so much better than on the Ormandy recording. For one thing it is taken a bit more slowly here and the improvement in the sound is measurable. The Swan of Tuonela is treated with sensitivity and the famous English horn solo, as primus inter pares, is placed within the orchestra as one would hear it at a concert without being spotlit. In the third movement, Ormandy’s high strings produce a fury anticipating the string writing in Tapiola, whereas Lintu brings out more of the bass lines in the music and his dynamic range is exceptional. The differences in Lemminkäinen’s Return are also worth noting: Ormandy’s is a very exciting, even swashbuckling rendition with thrilling trumpets. With Lintu, on the other hand, one is more aware of the woodwinds and lower brass, and both the depth and immediacy of the recording. That’s not to say it lacks excitement, but it has so much else contributing to it not least the stunning sound. I will still enjoy Ormandy’s performance, but am confident I will give this new account priority whenever I want to hear the whole suite.

For both Pohjola’s Daughter and the Lemminkäinen Legends these performances by Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony mark this Sibelius year in a quite special way.

Leslie Wright


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