SIBELIUS Lemminkäinen Suite. Spring Song. Suite from “Belshazzar’s Feast”
Sakari Oramo has recorded precious little Sibelius since his time in Birmingham but don’t think the repertoire on this disc constitutes anything less than a mighty statement. We have Sibelius in three different but vital modes – linguistic cornerstones, even – on which the BBC Symphony’s chief conductor brings deep insights to bear.
The first movement of the Lemminkäinen Suite is a remarkable structure that consistently puts me in mind of the new roof covering the concourse area at King’s Cross station in London: from a single source, a huge structure sprouts outwards to its double apex. Successful performances, at their most basic, enliven this fine tapestry’s copious details without letting them trespass on the line or disturb the layering. Oramo’s builds towards Lemminkäinen’s climactic encounter with Kyllikki with excellent strain and momentum, which in turn points up the exhausted repose that follows, even if some of the early stages of the build-up champ dangerously at the bit.
‘The Swan of Tuonela’ is placed third – often an argument for more symphonic than narrative appreciation – and the depth of the performance in this movement is telling. Oramo probes the striking orchestration at the end of that movement while, similarly, the closing bars of ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ have a magical aura (Susan Monks’s cello-playing here is special). ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’ – the work’s full-circle dash back to E flat major – has a Karelian bounce that few have matched and the orchestra, yet again, is sonorous but tight as a nut. Having just chosen my preferred recording of the suite for BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library (Paavo Järvi), there is no doubting this would have been a serious contender and at the very least an ‘also recommended’.
Control of detail is so important in Sibelius because it gives oxygen to those things that emerge from between the layers – both abstract and thematically real. It is thrilling to hear the rarity Spring Song played with full acknowledgement that this is rather more than a seasonal ditty; rather, a piece rooted in folklore and mystery that carries feelings of sensuality and awakening inside its Lutheran chassis. Oramo’s emphasis on cross-rhythms even argues the case for the ‘Oriental Dance’ from Belshazzar’s Feast as something rather more than a piece of fashion-conscious kitsch. In the extreme space, patience and distilled evocation (not to mention excellent solo work) of the rest of the suite we once again come close to the heart of Sibelius in an unlikely place.