Virgin Classics 2003
Virgin 5455612

Grammy Award

Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Ellerhein Girls’ Choir
Estonian National Male Chor

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)

1. Snöfrid, Op. 29 (1900) (11:23)
2. Oma maa, Op. 92 (1918) (11:55)
3. Väinön virsi, Op. 110 (1926) (8:42)
4. Sandels, Op. 28 (1898, rev. 1915) (9:09)
5. Maan virsi, Op. 95 (1918) (7:41)
6. Laulu Lemminkäiselle, Op. 31 No. 1 (1896) (3.31)
7. Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899) (8:36)

Total: 61:36


Sibelius wrote too little for most of us. Of such captivating and compelling quality are the major, repeatedly recorded, works that listeners will always be curious about the rest. Who knows … in due time some Sibelian academic of the 2030s may yet give us a speculative relaisation of the Eighth Symphony. Unthinkable? Impossible? I wonder.

Looking through the Sibelius catalogue is rather like browsing the Nielsen lists. Among the tone poems, concertos (one in the case of Sibelius) and symphonies are dotted various cantatas and celebratory choral works. These occasional pieces were for many years disregarded. Now come opportunities to assess them for the first time. Very welcome too.
Nielsen’s choral-orchestral pieces largely await exploration by the record companies. Sibelius has been more fortunate. Thor Johnson and the Cincinnati orchestra recorded The Origin of Fire in the days of LP (Varèse-Sarabande VC81941, reissued as late as circa 1977). Two cantatas, The Origin of Fire and Oma Maa were added as makeweights to Berglund’s second recording (1980s) of Kullervo with the Helsinki Philharmonic. The Bis Sibelius Edition (which has recently reached its 51st volume) has included such works but they are scattered here and there across a variety of discs and couplings.

Snöfrid pleasingly sets a Swedish text by Viktor Rydberg for female orator and mixed choir. Its saga subject has temptress trolls, a storm (evoked in the first few minutes) and a defiant hero. The women’s voices have a most agreeable recorded presence. Just before they enter we have a startlingly familiar gesture from the Second Symphony. The pleasing immediacy of the choir also registers in the lovely roundedness of the Oma Maa which is concerned with evocations of Midnight Sun not nationalistic bombast. The music becomes increasingly devotional with its invocation and praise centring on nature and the sun. If you think in terms of the glowing choral version of Rakastava with an added vibrancy then you are not far amiss in understanding this work. Väinön virsi is a late work piece but you must not expect anything revolutionary. Here Sibelius keys back into the idiom he had in the 1890s. This is related to the Karelia music. The subject is from the Kalevala where Väinämöinen prays to Jumala, the Creatrix, for protection, strength and harvests. This is more dramatically drawn than Oma Maa and in the background the clink of Väinämöinen’s forge can be heard as the singing rises to the glowing sun-dazzled heights. Maan Virsi is for mixed chorus (not as described in the booklet and insert). The zither-like kantele is evoked by the pizzicato writing. A relaxed serenade at 3.51 for orchestra delightful ushers in the returning choir. This is classically poised Sibelius rising to the best structured climactic statement on the disc (5.48).

Sandels was composed in Berlin. It is named after a General Sandels (1764-1831). The music starts out as jaunty storytelling with jolly clarinet solo work (tr. 4, 2.49) but from 4.38 Sibelius brings his sharply-focused imagination to bear on the battle scene with many memorable orchestral touches. It ends with brass ‘barks’ reminiscent of Finlandia. Just occasionally in this work his choral writing can veer into school song jollity but usually the treatment swerves back into fresher material before too much damage is done. Both Snöfrid and Sandels are termed ‘improvisations’. Laulu Lemminkäiselle is robustly cheerful and strongly rhythmic – well within the stirring Scandinavian male choral tradition and related in style to the Karelia’s alla marcia. Finally comes the choral (men’s voices) version of Finlandia. This is stirringly done though I have heard more threateningly imposing and rapped out brass playing – for example on the Stein (Decca) and Barbirolli (EMI Classics) readings of the orchestral version.

The disc is very well documented with full texts in Finnish and with side by side translations into German, French and English.

Sibelians will welcome this collection as might choral conductors looking for ideas for a short concert appetiser (none of these pieces are longer than 12 minutes). Sibelians will want to hear the battle scene in Sandels, the rounded invocation of Oma Maa and the superbly structured Maan Virsi.

(Rob Barnett.

D’un catalogue important, allant au-delà de l’opus 100, que connaît-on réellement chez Sibelius? Les symphonies, quelques poèmes symphoniques, le Concerto pour violon, peut-être le Quatuor «Voces intimæ» et… la Valse triste. Mais, en raison sans doute de l’obstacle de la langue, les mélodies ou les pièces chorales n’ont pas encore percé. Or, rien dans l’œuvre du compositeur finlandais ne mérite d’être négligé, pour la simple raison que rien n’y est négligé. Ce disque sortant des sentiers battus, conduit par Paavo Järvi avec la rigueur qu’on lui connaît, le confirme à nouveau et mérite donc d’être salué. D’une grande cohérence, il présente sept œuvres pour chœur et orchestre à thématique nationale, voire patriotique, écrites par Sibelius entre 1896 et 1926, c’est-à-dire aussi bien avant que pendant ou après l’indépendance, sur des textes en suédois ou en finlandais.

Ce qui frappe tout au long de cette heure de musique, c’est l’expression d’une personnalité suffisamment forte et originale pour que ces pièces ne versent jamais dans le pompiérisme, la ferveur compassée ou la statufication, car toutes ces partitions, à un moment ou à un autre, sont transfigurées par les fulgurances harmoniques (Sandels, sous-titré «improvisation» pour chœur d’hommes et orchestre) ou les éruptions dramatiques (Le Cantique de Väino) qui sont le propre de Sibelius.

Si la thématique reste fidèle à l’une de ses grandes sources d’inspiration – capitale pour la culture finlandaise – le Kalevala, et plus particulièrement le personnage de Lemminkäinen, on assiste également, au fil de ce programme, à l’évolution d’une personnalité, depuis l’influence wagnérienne (Chant de Lemminkäinen, entre Siegfried et… Alexandre Nevski, mais aussi le célèbre Finlandia, dans une version plus tardive faisant appel à un chœur d’hommes) ou straussienne (Snöfrid, autre «improvisation») remarquablement assimilée, jusqu’à une tonalité plus hymnique et recueillie, voire mystique (Notre pays, Le Cantique du pays), une fois dépassé le stade de l’aspiration à l’indépendance.

La notice complète et précise de Pierre Gervasoni (traduite en anglais et en allemand) constitue en outre une excellente introduction à cet univers.

(Simon Corley.