Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) In the Stream of Life Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 (1905-06) [13:49]
In the Stream of Life (Seven Songs Orchestrated by Rautavaara 2013-16) [19:07] Koskenlaskijan morsiamet, Op. 33 (The Rapids-rider’s Brides) (1897) [9:44]
Romance in C major for String Orchestra, Op. 42 (1904) [5:17] Hymn to Thaïs, the Unforgettable (1909) [2:07] Demanten på marssnön, Op. 36, No. 6 (The Diamond in the March Snow) (1900) [2:25] Hertig Magnus, Op. 57, No. 6 (Duke Magnus) (1909) [3:41] The Oceanides, Op. 73 (1914) [10:03] På verandan vid havet, Op. 38, No. 2 (On the Veranda by the Sea) (1902) [3:29] I natten, Op. 38, No. 3 (At Night) (1903) [5:05] Kom nu hit, död, Op. 60, No. 1 (Come Away, Death) (1909) [2:55]
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 7 March 2014 (In the Stream of Life, excluding Hjärtats morgon) and 23-25 August 2016 (other works)
Texts in original languages (Swedish, Finnish, German, English) and English translations CHANDOS CHSA5178 SACD [78:40]
The title of this disc refers to a selection of Sibelius songs that the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara orchestrated specifically for Gerald Finley. Rautavaara made the selection himself, choosing songs which suited Finley’s voice. As one can see by looking at the opus numbers and dates of the original works, [see note at the end of this review] this is not a cycle as such, but individual pieces from throughout Sibelius’s career. Orchestral versions of six of the songs were completed and first performed by Finley with the Bergen Philharmonic in March
2014, as on this premiere recording. A further song, Hjärtats morgon, was added to the group shortly before Rautavaara’s death in 2016 and recorded that year along with the other works on this disc. The other songs included in this programme were orchestrated by various hands, including the composer’s own. The single vocal work here that Sibelius originally intended for orchestra is Koskenlaskijan morsiamet from1897, whose sound is reminiscent of both Finlandia and the Symphony No. 1. Sibelius also orchestrated the last three songs on the disc, ‘På verandan vid havet’, ‘I natten’, and ‘Kom nu hit, död’, but this he did afterwards. He scored the last of these for baritone, harp, and strings in the final year of his life. For the most part, the orchestrations, whether by Sibelius, Rautavaara, or others, sound like Sibelius’s mastery of the medium. Interestingly, only one of the songs, ‘Koskenlaskijan morsiamet’, is in Finnish. Sibelius spoke Swedish as his primary language, so most of the songs are in that language. In addition, there is one in German by the poet Richard Dehmel, ‘Die stille Stadt’, and one in English, ‘Hymn to Thaïs, the Unforgettable’.
Gerald Finley is in splendid voice and seems perfectly matched to the music in these songs. It is rare for a non-Finnish singer to tackle them, while such renowned Finnish baritones, as Jorma Hynninen and Tom Krause are critically acclaimed interpreters. Finley seems quite at home here in whatever language he is singing. He is clearly one of the most versatile bass-baritones of our time. Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic accompany him as to the manner born.
The majority of these songs were unfamiliar to me, but I found virtually all of them interesting and memorable. Most of them seem well suited to the baritone voice, but for some I prefer a soprano, such as ‘Demanten på marssnön’ (Diamonds in the March Snow). Barbara Bonney sparkles in her recording on Decca of the original version of thi song with piano, and Soile Isokoski is superb in the orchestral version on Ondine. That disc with the Helsinki Philharmonic under Leif Segerstam includes Sibelius’s most renowned orchestral song and one of his supreme masterpieces, ‘Luonnotar’, in an unforgettable performance by Isokoski. None of the vocal works on this new disc reaches that level, though all are unmistakably Sibelian. I was particularly taken with the first of those orchestrated by Rautavaara, ‘Die stille Stadt’, which is simply beautiful with Finley’s soft singing and the Sibelius-like accompaniment. In some of the other songs, particularly ‘Jägargossen’ and ‘Hjärtats morgon’, I found Rautavaara’s orchestrations a bit too heavy, with excessive timpani, even if the songs are dramatic. Finley brings out the drama well in these pieces, in particular the Stürm und Drang of the latter. Other favourites include ‘I natten’, about silence and peace in a park at night that suits the warmth and flow of Finley’s singing, and ‘Kom nu hit, död’, a sad song of death where Finley is eloquently dark, but not overdone. There is a great deal of fine musicianship to treasure in these accounts.
The rest of the programme consists of two of Sibelius’s best-known works for orchestra, Pohjola’s Daughter and Oceanides, both of which have received numerous recordings, and the slighter piece for strings, the Romance in C major. Although Edward Gardner is not a Finn, nor is the orchestra Finnish, their renditions of these works compare well with such Finnish accounts as those of Pohjola’s Daughter by the Helsinki Philharmonic/Segerstam and the Finnish Radio Symphony/Lintu (both Ondine). Listening to the three versions one after the other, I came away with the satisfaction that all do full justice to the music. If I have a slight preference for Segerstam in this tone poem, it is because his treatment is slightly broader and more dramatic than the others. Notable is the climax around 10:30 where Segerstam’s orchestra makes the biggest impact. However, elsewhere there is little to choose. For Oceanides, I went back to Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1955 recording with the Royal Philharmonic (EMI), which still sounds good all these years later. It must be said, though, that the sonic improvements in the new Gardner performance are telling. Based on his performance, which is nearly the equal of Beecham’s, Gardner can wear his famous predecessor’s mantle with pride. I hope he will record the symphonies and other orchestral music.
Chandos has contributed its usual first-class production with notes that enlighten giving detailed information and photos in the booklet, as well as complete texts and translations. Recorded with immediacy and spaciousness, this disc deserves a place on the shelves of all Sibelius devotees and fans of Gerald Finley alike.
Track listing - In the Stream of Life Die stille Stadt, Op. 50, No. 5 (The Quiet Town) (1906) [2:50] Jägargossen, Op. 13, No. 7 (The Hunter Boy) (1891) [2:53] Hjärtats morgon, Op. 13, No. 3 (The Morning of the Heart) (1891) [2:31] Älven och snigeln, Op. 57, No. 1 (The River and the Snail) (1909) [2:53] Näcken, Op. 57, No. 8 (The Water Spirit) (1909) [2:59] Jag är ett träd, Op. 57, No. 5 (I Am a Tree) (1909) [2:57] Svarta rosor, Op. 36, No. 1 (Black Roses) (1899) [2:02]