Sibelius Tone Poems Malkki Helsinki BIS 2638 SACD

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Karelia Suite, Op 11 (1893)
Rakastava, Op 14 (1894/1911, rev. 1912)
Lemminkäinen, Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op 22 (1893-96)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki
rec. 2020-2023, Helsingin Musiikkitalo (Helsinki Music Centre), Finland
BIS-2638 SACD [79]

I first experienced the conducting of Susanna Mälkki back in 2011 when she conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in a most impressive performance of Mahler’s Third at the Three Choirs Festival (review). Since then, her CV has included a spell as Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (2016-2023). The performances on this SACD were all set down during that period.

This shrewdly assembled programme consists of three works which originated in the period 1893 to 1806. All three were subject to various revisions over time.

The well-known Karelia Suite is the one with which Sibelius tinkered least. As Andrew Barnett reminds us in his booklet essay, the music, consisting of an overture and eight tableaux, was originally composed for a patriotic soirée in 1893 at a time when Finnish patriotism and resentment at Russian rule was becoming ever stronger. The booklet includes a photo of the hall in which Sibelius’s music was premiered in 1893. The picture was taken in 1896 when, ironically, the square in front of the hall was decorated to mark the coronation of the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II. Around 1894, Sibelius refashioned the music into concert form, retaining the overture and drawing on the other music to form a three-movement suite, which is played here.

I enjoyed the performance. Susanna Mälkki takes the opening of the famous Intermezzo quite deliberately – the horn section plays very atmospherically – and the quicker central episode is made proudly patriotic. The Ballade is well shaped. I particularly liked the hymn-like section (4:08 – 6:15) in which the strings distinguish themselves; this music seems to be a stable mate of the central episode in Finlandia. The concluding Alla marcia is sprightly; one can readily imagine that this music would have stirred patriotic sentiments among early Finnish audiences.

Andrew Barnett details no less than five versions of Rakastava, all for different forces. The version offered here is the last one, which Sibelius scored for a string orchestra, with tiny contributions from timpani and triangle. This is the only work on Susanna Mälkki’s programme which was recorded live, in October 2020; even when I listened through headphones, I could detect no evidence of the commendably silent audience. The strings of the Helsinki Philharmonic play the three movements very well indeed. I was impressed by the poetic approach to the tender first movement, ‘The Lover’, and the other two movements are equally successful.

The meat of the programme is to be found in Lemminkäinen. I’ve often seen this work referred to as a suite, but I’m not sure that such a description does proper justice to what is, in effect, a collection of four tone poems. In the header I’ve just given the dates of the original compositions; each of the four pieces was subject to various revisions and to list them all in the header would have been excessive. Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island was composed in 1896, the same year as two of the other pieces. Sibelius revised those three 1896 compositions, twice: in 1897 and 1939. The Swan of Tuonela is something of an outlier, both in terms of when it was composed and the dates of its two revisions. It dates from 1893 and was subject to revisions in 1897 and 1900. As Andrew Barnett explains, the pieces were quite well received when they first appeared, though one influential Finnish critic was hostile and his reaction may well have influenced the early revisions. What I didn’t know until I read Mr Barnett’s essay was that Sibelius intended to publish all four pieces in 1939, but war intervened and it was as late as 1954 when publication occurred.

I think Susanna Mälkki makes a very fine job of all four pieces. In the Allegro molto moderato introduction to Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, she invests the music with significant tension. When the Allegro moderato arrives, the pace is lively and the orchestra articulates the rhythms with an excellent spring. The drama is brought out very successfully in a performance that contains plenty of fire and energy. I’ll comment on the recorded sound later; suffice to say for now that the excellence of the recording means that the performance is vivid.

The most celebrated of the four pieces is The Swan of Tuonela. This performance benefits from the marvellous contribution of the cor anglais player, Paula Malmivaara. She depicts the doleful yet majestic swan with playing of poise and eloquence. The music – and this performance – is every bit as haunting as Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead. Lemminkäinen in Tuonela receives a terrific performance. Mälkki builds the tension really well and the ominous brass chords, first heard at 4:10, make a telling effect each time they occur. When those chords dominate the final climax (13:12), there’s a Mahlerian intensity to the performance. Finally, the shortest piece, Lemminkäinen’s Return is given a dashing, exciting performance. Mälkki drives the music forward thrillingly – without ever making it seem over-driven – and the Helsinki Philharmonic plays with sharp articulation and plenty of punch. I think this is a terrific account of the Lemminkäinen Legends; I enjoyed and admired it very much.

As I indicated earlier, the excellence of the recorded sound is a significant factor. All three works are expertly recorded, but I was especially impressed by the audio in Lemminkäinen. In that work in particular, the orchestra is recorded with great presence. I love the way the bass drum comes through, especially in Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island. In truth, though, all sections of the orchestra are presented with great fidelity in sound that is both exciting and natural. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD and whether I used speakers or headphones, I got excellent results. These recordings are right up to BIS’s usual very high standards, as is the documentation.

Presented in exemplary sound, these fine performances should be heard by all Sibelius admirers.

John Quinn

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