Sibelius’s songs have taken a long time to come in from the cold. After all‚ the few that are relatively wellknown (Black roses and Op 37 No 5‚ ‘The Tryst’) are passionate enough to have come from Italian opera‚ and others which over the years have found a place in the repertoire have a span of phrase and a melodic surge that encourage the voice to rise thrillingly‚ as in ‘The Tryst’s’ predecessor‚ ‘Was it a dream?’. The tingle of a Nordic chill in among this is in fact a further excitement of the blood. Given a voice that can combine the sparkle of sunlight on snow with the dark splendour which lies at the heart of those black roses‚ an entire programme of Sibelius’s songs offers not an austere pleasure but almost a rich indulgence.
To those specifications concerning the singer there needs then to be added others about the pianist; and from both artists there must be a ready supply of imagination. Katarina Karnéus and Julius Drake answer these calls magnificently. The voice is firm and resonant‚ purest in quality in the upper DtoF region and of ample range in both directions. In Julius Drake she has a pianist who extends the normal field of vision‚ and the two work together to great effect.
This is now an area where the record catalogue provides plenty of choice‚ and it has been good to see how well the KarnéusDrake combination survives competition. In the opening song‚ To evening (‘Illalle’)‚ Karita Mattila‚ Soile Isokoski‚ Anne Sofie von Otter and their respective pianists come up for immediate comparison and none is half so good in ‘building’ the verses. Where Mattila‚ golden in tone as she is‚ gives the line simply as repetitions in a sequence‚ and Isokoski‚ with shading and additional refinements‚ does much the same‚ von Otter adds a freedom nearer to the spoken word‚ but still does not ‘build’. Karnéus and Drake work on it with such effective graduations of power and intensity that everything is enhanced – the vocal line‚ the piano’s tremolandos‚ words‚ mood‚ the poemaspainting‚ the song as miniature epic.
In some others – ‘Little Lasse’ in Op 37 and the remarkable ‘Tennis in Trianon’ of Op 36 are examples – von Otter and Bengt Forsberg bring a further sophistication‚ more rightfully placed in the second example than the first. I still wouldn’t hesitate to make this new issue a prime choice if looking for a single disc of 25 to represent Sibelius’ output of roughly 100 songs. Not all the best are here – but in such matters do you really want all the best? Suppose you take to them ‘in a big way’: isn’t it far more satisfying to know that some of the best still remain to be heard?