Sibelius Rondo of the Waves BIS

Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2003 and the recording is still available.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Rondo of the Waves
Lahti SO/Osmo Vänskä
rec. 2000-03, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland 
The Complete Sibelius Volume 51
BIS BISCD1445 [66]

Hardcore Sibelians will need no second bidding. In fact they will have bought this CD long before reading this review. They are most unlikely to be disappointed for this disc contains some vintage Sibelius.

The Oceanides in its various stages of evolution forms the core of this selection. It appears in three forms. For Sibelius enthusiasts this will be the main draw although completists (to whom the Bis Sibelius Edition inevitably appeals) will have many pleasurable surprises before the disc is played right through.

The place of The Oceanides’ in the Sibelius catalogue has been peripheral. The starker minimalist corner holds The Bard and Luonnotar. The warmer realms are inhabited by Nightride and Sunrise, itself an echo of Nielsen’s Mediterranean sunrise in the overture Helios, and The Oceanides. The front rank of the tone poems is occupied by En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter and Finlandia, all of which have attracted many recordings.

The Oceanides was never recorded by Kajanus or Schneevoight. It fell to Beecham (EMI) and Boult (1950s, Omega Classics OCD 1028) to establish a performing tradition on disc. The Beecham has held its place rather well, usually coupled with his final and rather languidly indulgent Seventh Symphony. In the early 1970s Antal Dorati recorded the work for EMI Classics. Boult’s 1956 mono version with the LPO is nervy and tetchy but shows its age both in the high volume of hiss and in the unsophisticated ADD sound. Better still is Sinaïski’s version with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1991. This is outstanding for the rampant feral tempest achieved at 7.50. Simon Rattle’s EMI version with the CBSO is highly thought of. The Bis recording of the final version of the tone poem is from BIS-CD-1225, issued in 2002. It is the best recording I have heard, resplendent in subtle hues, rich in allusion and silky in string sound whether solos or in full spate. The gentle dialogue at 06.48 is a good example of Vänskä’s and Bis’s non-obvious approach. Vänskä literally plays up a storm straight out of Tapiola at 8.48 though missing by a hair the smashing power expressed by Sinaïski on his Harmonia Mundi version (the complete Sibelius tone poems LDC 288 105/107).

The Yale version of The Oceanides is the second stage, just prior to the evolution of the piece into the tone poem we now know. It was written at the commission of Carl Stoeckel for the Norfolk Festival. Some of the themes and treatments are familiar from the final edit but here they often go off in new directions. There is also fresh material: lush harp sweeps from Luonnotar, romantic yearning from the Second Symphony, shrills and shudders from Tapiola. Coming to it afresh you should approach this, not in the spirit of study but simply appreciate it as a ‘new’ Sibelius tone poem with its own identity using some material familiar from The Oceanides. What a title it once enjoyed: Rondo of the Waves! A shame it was cast aside.

You can also hear two movements of a three part suite which seems to have been the first stage in the genesis of The Oceanides. While Aallottaret (i.e. the Yale version) is a completely earnest and very beautiful piece, this suite is predominantly lighter. It is extremely graceful in both tr. 2 (tempo moderato) and tr. 3 (Allegro) and is akin to the best of Sibelius’s theatre music.

Cassazione begins stern, relentlessly insistent, ferocious and triple forte – quite the antithesis of the title. I wonder, did John Barry see the score for this before writing the more threateningly peremptory and inimical Bond music. The piece remains pretty uniformly serious. This is a surprising work and certainly not the sort of light Sibelius we hear in the various late string suites. There is even a Balakirev-style clarinet solo at 4.50, an Elgarian serenade at 7.02 and a chaste oboe solo at 10.37. The piece is played and recorded with wit, rapacious energy and gripping concentration. Sibelius must have had a sense of humour to call this work a ‘cassation’. It is more of a Ballade for orchestra. Serious Sibelians need to hear this.

Musik zu Einer Scène was written for a tableau so its filmic Tchaikovskian qualities should not surprise. Here, quite apart from the later lighter moments, with much work for flute and tambourine, Sibelius looks back to the first two symphonies. The piece ends as rain heavy storm clouds gather and thunder rumbles.

The Coronation March was originally part of the 1896 cantata for the Coronation of Nicholas II. It is heavy with atmosphere but elusive in subject matter. Not another Pomp and Circumstance to be sure.

Morceau Romantique has a voluptuous Spanish atmosphere with the odd nod toward Tchaikovsky. The March of the Pori Regiment is the leading march of the Finnish armed forces. The melody is not Sibelius’s. It is an exercise in noisy braggadoccio and repetitive gesture. The Cortège starts well with a stern fanfare reminiscent of the trumpets in Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. A nicely turned characteristic Sibelian melody written with some tribute to Tchaikovsky surely in mind, is underpinned by an ‘oompah’ brass ostinato. The 1895 version of Spring Song is as impressive as Cassazione. This is the Sibelius of Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari (6.32; 8.43). Here the mass strings dominate. Climactic moments suggest a hybrid of Miaskovsky and Tchaikovsky in the deliberately paced yet taut-as-a-drum string passages which predominate.

Superbly documented and engineered. Exalted interpretative values and rare vintage Sibelius. For those who must have their Sibelius ‘fix’ here is a mix of barrel scrapings and substantial discoveries: Cassazione, Aallottaret and Spring Song as well as an outstanding recording of The Oceanides.

Rob Barnett

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Presto Music

Aallottaret (The Oceanides) (Yale version) (1914) 
Fragments from a suite for orchestra (The predecessor of The Oceanides)
The Oceanides (Aallottaret) (final version) (1914) 
Cassazione (first version) (1904) 
Musik zu Einer Scène (1904) 
Coronation March (1904) 
Morceau Romantique (1925) 
Porilaisten Marssi (arr. Sibelius) (1900) 
Cortège (1905) 
Spring Song (1904)