New BIS & Chandos

SIBELIUS: Kullervo, Finlandia (choral version); KORTEKANGAS: Migrations, Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano), Tommi Hakala (baritone), YL Male Voice Choir, Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor) BIS SACD

Ever since its first commercial recording in 1970 Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony Op.7 has been blessed by a remarkable number of perceptive interpretations on disc, five of which have been issued on SACD in high resolution multi-channel sound, providing fierce competition to any newcomer. Now, following on from Osmo Vänskä’s superb cycle of the seven numbered Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, we have his latest thoughts on this monumental five movement work. This new live recording is taken from three concerts (4th, 5th and 6th of February 2016) given at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis and is in every respect a serious challenger to existing versions. Osmo Vänskä first recorded Kullervo in 2001 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra as part of his first Sibelius cycle for BIS and excellent though it was, I have no hesitation in declaring that this new one is even better on a number of counts. Vänskä’s performance is once again epic in scale possessing a marvellous breadth and nobility that seems to have inspired all the participants to give of their best. The overall timing of his earlier recording was an astonishing 81 minutes, yet such was the conductor’s purposeful direction and firm control of the work’s structure it never dragged or lacked a forward pulse. Here Vänskä clocks in at 79’29 and gives a more taut yet still expansive reading of the score.
Timings for the five movements are: I Introduction 12’46, II Kullervo’s Youth 19’05, III Kullervo and his Sister 25’55, IV Kullervo goes to War 9’41, V Kullervo’s Death 11’19. It is in movements II and III that Vänskä brings a special and unique insight to the score. ‘Kullervo’s Youth’ moves inexorably with a tragic mien and a sense of dark foreboding that is totally enveloping thanks to the unwavering focus, concentration and sheer beauty of the Minnesota Orchestra’s playing. ‘Kullervo’s Sister’ opens in thrilling orchestral style before the entry of the splendid 60-strong YL Male Voice Choir from Helsinki whose runic chanting is splendidly balanced with the orchestra in the spacious BIS recording. The two soloists, the mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi and baritone Tommi Hakala have both appeared on other recordings of this work – Paasikivi for Vänskä and Hakala for Segerstam. While neither disappoint, I found the occasional unsteadiness in Hakala’s singing and his effortful delivery as he curses himself a slight drawback when compared with, for example, Juha Uusitalo on Ari Rasilainen’s fine CPO recording. There is little doubt though that Vänskä’s absolute grasp of the work’s architecture and his authoritative direction of the superlative Minnesota Orchestra yield a performance of spacious grandeur that does provide many moments of frisson rarely matched by the studio recordings. At this point it is worth mentioning that Kullervo is complete on the first disc of this two-disc set while the other two works performed at these concerts with a total playing time of 33’41 occupy the second. The Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas (born 1955) received a commission from the Minnesota Orchestra to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of modern Finnish immigration to North America. Vänskä wanted a work that could be paired, as here, in concert with the Kullervo Symphony. While searching for suitable texts Kortekangas discovered the work of the Minnesota-based poet Sheila Packa herself of Finnish descent and so set four of her poems on the theme of migration for mezzo soprano, male voice choir and orchestra similar forces to those used in the Sibelius work. Both Lilli Paasikivi and the YL Male Voice Choir show themselves to be equally adept in English as Finnish and give an authoritative account of this restless and often stormy piece.
The final work on the disc, in which the orchestra is again joined by the YL Male Voice Choir, is a rousing performance of Sibelius’s most famous work ‘Finlandia’. Here the original orchestral version is brilliantly combined with that of the choral arrangement that Sibelius made in 1940. The incisive orchestral playing and full-throated choral contribution of the choir in the hymn section make this unusual Finlandia most memorable, and unsurprisingly at its conclusion the audience shows its appreciation with well-deserved cheers and enthusiastic applause. The engineering of the BIS recording team on these 5.0 hybrid SACDs is excellent. The sound is vivid and spacious while the surround channels add pleasing ambience. Presentation is also the usual high standard we expect from BIS. The two discs are housed in a single width CD jewel box enclosed within a cardboard slip case that also contains a 63-page booklet giving full texts and translations for all three works and excellent notes by Andrew Barnett. This is an impressive achievement and makes a fitting appendix to Vänskä’s acclaimed Sibelius recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra. Highly recommended.

SIBELIUS: In the Stream of Life, Gerald Finley | Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra | Edward Gardner/ Chandos CHSA 5178 [PREMIERE RECORDINGS]  In every respect this is a wonderful and very special recording that will undoubtedly be one of my top recommendations for the coming year. The Sibelius programme on this SACD, in which the performance of the Symphonic Fantasia ‘Pohjola’s Daughter’ serves as a prelude to the fourteen songs that follow, is a splendidly conceived one. The insertion of two further orchestral works – the short ‘Romance in C for String Orchestra’ and the tone poem ‘The Oceanides’ – serve to break up the songs into smaller groups and thus provide a most effective contrast with the vocal pieces. What, however, will make this disc especially interesting to all Sibelius aficionados is the inclusion of the premiere recording of ‘In the Stream of Life’ a collection of seven songs orchestrated by the late Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928 – 2016). These particular songs were chosen by Rautavaara with the voice of the superb Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley in mind and received their World Premiere on 6th March 2014 in the Grieghallen, Bergen by the artists on this recording. The settings, sung in Finnish, German and Swedish, include the poetry of Ernst Josephson, Johan Ludvig Runeberg and Richard Dehmel, the poet whose output provided a rich source of inspiration for a number of songs by Richard Strauss. The orchestrations by Rautavaara are imaginative and idiomatic, though perhaps closer in texture to his own music than that of Sibelius.
The majority of the remaining songs on this recording were orchestrated by the composer himself with the notable exception of ‘Hymn to Thais, the Unforgettable’, which was the work of his son-in-law Jussi Jalas and surprisingly was the only song Sibelius ever wrote in English. Familiar favourites such as ‘Demanten på marssnön’ (the Diamond on the March snow) and ‘Kom nu hit död (Come Away, Death) are included, as is a gripping account of ‘Koskenlaskijan morsiamet’ (The Rapids-riders Brides).
Gerald Finley’s performances of each of these songs are quite simply magnificent. He conveys the drama and emotions of the poems with complete assurance and delivers them throughout with rock steady singing, immaculate diction and unfailing beauty of tone. These are certainly interpretations to treasure. The accompaniments provided by Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra are equally impressive, with playing that matches the commitment and sensitivity of the soloist. Neither does Gardner disappoint the three purely orchestral works included here. He perfectly captures the dark and brooding atmosphere at the start of ‘Pohjola’s Daughter’, aided by wonderfully sonorous playing from the cellos, contra-bassoon and bass clarinet while the strings of the orchestra contribute an elegant and richly nuanced account of the ‘Romance, Op. 42’. Finally Gardner gives us an evocative account of ‘The Oceanides’ one of the most striking and impressionistic, yet least played, of Sibelius’s tone poems making a welcome first appearance on SACD. The recording team of Brian Pidgeon (producer) and Ralph Couzens (sound engineer) assisted by Gunnar Herleif Nilsen from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) have achieved a recorded balance that convincingly places the soloist’s voice in front of the the orchestra without undue spotlighting and admirably recreates the familiar acoustic of the Bergen Hall, especially in the 5.0 multichannel mix.
Chandos, most helpfully, provide the full texts and translations of all fourteen songs in the liner notes, something that is not always the case with releases from other companies.
This SACD will be a mandatory purchase for all who love the music of Sibelius as well as the countless admirers of the magnificent voice and exceptional musicianship of Gerald Finley and as such it fully deserves the highest possible recommendation.

HOLST: The Planets / STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra, CBSO Youth Chorus / National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain / Edward Gardner/Chandos CHSA 5179  Chandos deserve the highest praise for making this impressive recording of the wonderful National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. This orchestra, comprised of musically talented teenagers – aged between 13 and 19 – started life in 1948 and has been the cradle for some of the finest musicians the UK has produced, many of whom have gone on to musical careers of great distinction. Following a series of successful concerts during Summer 2016, that included the two works on this SACD, the orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner transferred to Symphony Hall, Birmingham to spend two intense recording sessions (August 8th and 9th 2016) committing their performances to disc. The theme of the concerts that preceded this recording was Space, and it could be argued that Richard Strauss’s Nietzschean tone poem ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’, has only a tenuous link with that theme, thanks to the inspired use of its opening section in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’. But it must be admitted that it makes a fitting companion to Holst’s ‘Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra’ another immensely popular blockbuster, even though the latter’s subject is astrological rather than astronomical.
‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ is not an easy work to bring off convincingly in performance. Too often what follows the celebrated opening bars can seem as something of an anti-climax unless the conductor has a firm grip on the work’s structure and ensures that the eight sections that follow cohere into a seamless whole rather than becoming episodic. Thanks to his generally forward pulse Gardner achieves this most successfully while also stressing the sheer originality of the music and what in 1896 would have seemed its striking modernity. He makes no concessions to the youthfulness of his gargantuan160+ piece orchestra who respond wholeheartedly with thrilling and utterly committed playing of the highest standard. Special praise is due to the orchestra’s leader Millie Ashton who delivers the tricky ‘Das Tanzlied’ section [Tr. 8] with complete assurance. Nevertheless in spite of the huge number of players (all of whose names are listed in the liner notes) the sound does not have the weight and tonal depth that one might expect from a fully professional orchestra. This impression is compounded by the perspective of the 5.1 multi-channel recording that, while giving every entry of the organ a room shaking presence, places the orchestra at some distance to the disadvantage of the strings in particular. As with the Strauss work Gardner’s ‘Planets’ is dynamic, swift moving and, with an overall timing of 48′ 01”, the uncompromising vigour of his interpretation is both self-evident and most welcome. Beginning with a forceful and menacing account of Mars, in which the percussion section have a field day, each of the subsequent six movements is brilliantly characterized. Venus flows with stately elegance, Mercury is nimble, the very brisk pace for Jupiter really does suggest “The Bringer of Jollity” whilst the inexorability of Gardner’s powerful and chilling account of Saturn contrasts with one of the most rumbustious account of Uranus I think I have ever heard. Finally, the accurately pitched wordless singing of the CBSO Youth Chorus at the conclusion of a glacial Neptune bring this memorable Planets, a performance that unquestionably demonstrates to the full the virtuosity of these young players, to a satisfying conclusion. Chandos already have a fine SACD version of the Planets in their catalogue from Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic. That was recorded in DSD whereas the new one is in Chandos’s preferred 24-bit / 96k Hz, and to my ears the sonics, though good, are not quite as vivid or immediate as those on the earlier release. In spite of my reservations, those looking for these two works in high resolution sound should seriously consider putting this recording on their shortlist.