Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Sagas: Melodramas and reduced instrumental versions
Vincent Figuri (recitation), Shigeko Hata (soprano), Ensemble Calliopée/Karine Lethiec
rec. 2020/2021, Vaudeurs, France
Salamandre 004 [66]

As a trend it’s not that assertive but, since the mid-1990s, there has grown a constituency for creation or revival of reduced ensemble versions of big works. I have in mind the crop of small ensemble reductions for the Strauss waltzes (by Second Viennese school composers, for a start) and for Das Lied von der Erde. It’s a fairly squelchy and fuzzy ‘category’ which could be taken to accommodate any re-teasing of orchestration to fit the orchestra membership that is to hand. If an orchestra happens not to have some augmented players, or cannot afford to incorporate the required instruments or the required number of players, then re-score. Adapt to survive.

Then again there are the chamber versions of Mozart piano concertos and the piano and two-piano reductions of the Beethoven symphonies and so it goes on. It’s beyond me to draw fine (or coarse) distinctions, so let’s just press on, noting that the present Sibelius disc – at the hands of M. Vincent Figuri’s Salamandre label – surges away with some distinction at the composer’s own reductions and at other people’s reduced editions. On occasion the version featured is not so much a reduction from a larger score but a landmark along the road to how the larger score first emerged. Often a complicated evolution of the recognised instrumental specification has ensued. It’s the real world and practicalities rise triumphant.

The performers here are Ensemble Calliopée, which comprises 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 doublebass, 2 horns, 1 flute, 1 clarinet and 1 harp. They are used here on a mix and match basis across the six pieces featured. Two of the works are heard in two languages (French and Swedish: Le Portrait de la Comtesse) and the other (La Trace de ski solitaire) in versions that in one case are for strings alone but also for strings with reciter.

This project has been evolved for and levelled at the French language market. There is a track record for Sibelius in French or using French resources. The Cyprès label harbours several instances. Most recently there is a symphony cycle from Paavo Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris (RCA-BMG). Of the greatest distinction and belonging in the collection of every authentic Sibelian are the series of Decca-Universal CDs from Horst Stein and l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Homing in on this Gallic aspect for this Salamandre recording, the spoken (and rarely sung) words are in the stirringly designed and illustrated booklet. They are in French in the left-hand column and Swedish in the right-hand. The scene-setting notes are in French only and are by M. Figuri.

Les Nuits de la jalousie – to words by Runeberg, who Sibelius also set in song – is a work of some considerable substance. It’s a long, long setting for piano, violin, cello, soprano and orator. It does not come across as especially Finnish Nationalist but a rising turbulent intensity is remarkable as it contorts higher and higher. Figuri’s voice is hushed and teeters on the cliff edge between sorrow and excitement. He acts and does not dispassionately recite. His voice brims with personality and quiet yet intense passion. There’s no declamation; Figuri is not of the school of John Westbrook in RVW and Bliss. The last time I heard this was from the actor-orators in Prokofiev’s Eugene Onegin on a 2-LP Melodiya recording (C10 11911 – late 1970s) The conductor there was Kamul Abdullayev with singers and actors including A. Konsovsky, Yevgeny Kibkalo and N. Milanovich. Sheer magic. It is a watermark of Figuri’s role that his photo on page 29 has him holding an indicative whispering finger to his lips. Notable episodes in the Sibelius include the raindrop figuration from the piano at 6:08 and the fast trickling instrumental contrasts at 9:40. Soprano Shigeko Hata’s role takes the form of a wordless vocalise (rather like Rachmaninov’s work of the same name) that carries both innocence and heightened ecstatic infusion. The work ends with a single stutter. There’s no grandstanding here.

La trace de ski solitaire is a very short work for strings, harp and reciter. It can be heard as the French version on track 2 and in Swedish language on track 8. The words are by Bertel Gripenberg. Again there is no question of Figuri “doing a” Laurence Olivier and shouting to stir the dust on the rafters. Through his technique and judgements whisper and wonder are conflated.

Le Portrait de la Comtesse puts in an appearance at track 3 in a strings-only edition. A ‘companion’ to this piece, without vocal overlay or underlay, is the original septet version of En Saga. This equally short piece is to my mind much more than juvenilia. Its murmurous ways trace a path that might stir memories of the Karelia overture.

The Wood Nymph (La Nymphe des bois – a setting of Rydberg) is a magical piece of juvenilia; not at all small beer. Here, the narration becomes more of a stimulant which contrasts with the more subtle recitation in the earlier tracks. This barely curbed excitement is soused in the liquor of the faster pages of En Saga and the Lemminkäinen poems. A typically Sibelian ostinato gives the work a tension and force of concentration that can be heard reaching its peak in the first half of Nightride and Sunrise and throughout Luonnotar.

En Saga (1891-92) swept me along into Sibelian fanaticism when I first heard it on Decca’s LP of the Sibelius tone poems from Horst Stein. It figures here in a reconstruction for septet by Gregory M. Barrett, clarinetist and a distinguished member of staff for Northern Illinois University School of Music. To be precise, it is for strings, flute and clarinet. Hearing it in this skeletal, yet not dry version often makes the work ‘seem’ quite unfamiliar. It is most attractively executed and recorded. Nice to hear this version once in a while.  

Ô, Si tu voyais is a short piece of echt and distinctive Sibelius. It is quiet, tender and tense in the manner of Rakastava. Figuri’s recitation proceeds at a well-judged pace that keeps up a good strolling speed. Originally for voice and piano, it is heard here in Figuri’s arrangement that stays in touch with the essentials of the original rather than swamping it.

This is well worth the attention of out-and-out Sibelians looking for new perspectives on some familiar landscapes.

Rob Barnett


1  Les Nuits de la jalousie
2  La Trace de ski solitaire
3  Le Portrait de la comtesse
4  La Nymphe des bois
5  En Saga
6 Ô, Si tu voyais
7 Le Portrait de la comtesse
8 Ett ensamt skidspar

A Lonely Ski Trail (2 versions, recitation in French and Swedish);
The Countess’s Portrait (2 versions, without recitation and with recitation in French)