In the Stream of Life: Sibelius Songs
Even in the English-speaking world, where Sibelius has mostly enjoyed a high reputation, his vocal music remains undervalued. The language barrier hasn’t helped, nor has his ungrateful piano-writing. Sibelius’s art song accompaniments habitually imply fuller textures yet he himself scored relatively few for larger forces, posing problems of authenticity for determined advocates like Gerald Finley. I can’t recall a high-profile disc of orchestrally accompanied Sibelius songs since that of Soile Isokoski (Ondine, 7/06) and you have to look back to the mid-Nineties for a similar miscellany featuring a male soloist: Jorma Hynninen, again with Leif Segerstam directing for the same label. Although Hynninen enjoyed a long association with the late Einojuhani Rautavaara, it was for the Canadian’s similarly focused albeit less insistently heroic bass-baritone that the composer orchestrated seven Sibelius songs in the slipstream of his own Omar Khayyám cycle, Rubáiyát. The booklet contains a tribute from Finley reviewing their late-blooming friendship. Odd, then, that its cover makes no mention of Rautavaara’s involvement, despite applying the title of his Sibelius selection, In the Stream of Life, to the album as a whole.
In making his choices Rautavaara seems to have wanted to reflect Sibelius’s broad stylistic range from full-blooded Romanticism to gnomic modernism. The languages set are various too: German and Finnish as well as Swedish. In the opening ‘Die stille Stadt’ (‘The Silent City’), where Segerstam as orchestrator felt the need to vary the string textures, Rautavaara provides a continuous quasi-mystical sheen, the undulations allocated to clarinet and flute rather than harp, the surface discreetly flecked with glockenspiel. The sequence calls for a relatively small orchestra with enthusiastic timpanist. Winningly sung as it is, the familiar climactic number, ‘Svarta rosor’ (‘Black Roses’), struck me as underdressed.
Finley appends a further seven songs, arranged by other hands. The ‘Hymn to Thaïs’ is the most obscure. Devised in 1909, reconstructed in 1945 and rededicated to Aulikki Rautawaara (sic), the composer’s cousin, it is given in its original English. More musically significant highlights include ‘Kom nu hit, död’ (‘Come away, Death’), in the ‘white dwarf’ string arrangement on which Sibelius was supposedly working at the very end of his life, and the epic Finnish-language ‘Koskenlaskijan morsiamet’ (awkwardly translated as ‘The Rapids-Shooter’s Brides’), which he composed half a century earlier at the time of the Lemminkäinen Suite. Both performances come off well, without trumping the natural articulation and jet-black tautness of Hynninen with Jorma Panula in Gothenburg (BIS, 11/85).
There are also three purely orchestral pieces. Gardner and the orchestra kick off proceedings with an impressionistic account of Pohjola’s Daughter, its narrative characterised by fine detail as much as unrelenting forward drive, woodwind naturally placed rather than spotlit. The Romance for strings makes an attractive interlude, pressed into service between thematically related songs. Likewise the more volatile Oceanides. While Osmo Vänskä (BIS, 9/02) may be more successful in showing how Sibelius’s water music constantly transforms itself, every eddy and current climaxing at subtly different points, Gardner’s softer grain is persuasive too, enhancing this impressive if idiosyncratic programme.