Finley’s Sibelius Tribute Fascinating and Deeply-Felt

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SIBELIUS: Pohjola’s Daughter. In the Stream of Life (orch. Rautuvaara)*. Koskenlaskijan Morslamet, Op. 33*. Romance. Hymn to Thaïs, the Unforgettable (orch. Jalas)*. Demanten på marssnön (orch. Hellman)*. Hertig Magnus (orch. Helasvuo)*. The Oceanides. På Veranden Vid Havet*. I Natten*. Kom nu hit, Död* / *Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5178

Although Jean Sibelius died just three months short of his 92nd birthday, his fame rests on the music he wrote up until 1926, when he was 61, and the bulk of that output was composed before World War I. The liner notes remind us that his seven symphonies and a handful of tone poems, along with the Violin Concerto, comprise the bulk of his output, but several of his songs became well known through the performances and recordings of such artists as tenor Jussi Björling and soprano Kirsten Flagstad, who recorded a few of them (the most popular being Svarta Rosor or Black Roses). Here, in a tribute to the composer, conductor Edward Gardner gives us his take on three of his orchestral pieces—Pohjola’s Daughter, Romance and The Oceanides—which are interspersed with orchestral versions of his song output. Most of the orchestrations were done by the composer himself, an exception being Jussi Jalas’ 1945 version of Hymn to Thaïs, dedicated to the great Finnish soprano Aulikki Rautavaara (she was the Countess in both Fritz Busch’s and Bruno Walter’s 1930s Nozze di Figaro performances) in 1945. Aulikki’s son, the late Einojuhani Rautavaara, took a group of seven of the composer’s songs, including the popular Svarta Rosor, and orchestrated them for Finley to sing with an orchestra. This is the suite’s first recording.

What impressed me, perhaps more than anything, was the wonderfully idiomatic conducting of Edward Gardner, whom I had not previously known. His performance of Pohjola’s Daughter perhaps lacks a bit of the atmosphere that Serge Koussevitzky and especially the great Robert Kajanus brought to it, but compared to what one has been used to in the past 30 years or so, it’s a wonderfully detailed performance with great feeling. I admit not being previously familiar with the other instrumental pieces on this disc, but if I judge these performances by the first piece, I’d say they, too, were very good (although I found The Oceanides to be a somewhat weak piece). Perhaps his use of the Bergen Philharmonic, which has this music in their blood, has something to do with it.

Finley has long been one of my favorite baritones, but I’m more used to him in opera, particularly the operas of Britten (Owen Wingrave), Rossini (Guillaume Tell) and Mozart (particularly Le Nozze di Figaro, which I own on DVD). Lieder singing, even the lieder of a Scandinavian country like Finland, is a completely different sort of art; only the already-noted Svarta Rosor is really what you would call “operatic” in character, thus I was curious to hear how he did. His handsome voice has not deteriorated a whit over the years—in fact, it has darkened somewhat, and he now sounds uncannily like the late Heinrich Schlusnus—and he performs the songs with great refinement and attention to the text. At this point in his career, I’m happy to see him doing more lieder; he’s exceptionally good at it. I see that he has recorded Samuel Barber songs as well as Schumann’s Dichterliebe and three volumes of Liszt songs, but he should branch out.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s orchestrations are colorful and very much in the Sibelius style. Too many conductors, particularly Karajan, make Sibelius’ music sound too “soft,” but when you really examine the scores you’ll see that the great Finn used many dramatic orchestral devices, and conductors like Kajanus, Beecham and Toscanini brought them out with tremendous vigor and clarity back in the old days. Since Gardner is also a very dynamic conductor, he, too, emphasizes the dramatic side of these new scores. One thing I did notice was Ratauvaara’s penchant for using solo strings and percussion instruments (particularly tympani and the triangle) in ways that Sibelius never quite thought of, yet the concept fits in with the songs, most of which are nature-driven and/or have central themes connected to nature (The Hunter Boy, The River and the Snail, The Water Spirit, I Am a Tree, and of course Black Roses). And guess what? I personally prefer the baritone key of the last song to the more familiar tenor and soprano versions. Aside from the fact that Finley interprets the song with much more detail than Jussi Björling, the music just suits a darker voice more than a brighter one.

I was also much impressed by his performances of the rather long and musically varied Koskenlaskijan Morslamet. (The attentive listener may note, in this authentic orchestration by the composer, the slightly different way he uses both strings and percussion. The tympani is present, but it does not quite dominate the mood as it does in Rautavaara’s orchestrations.) Possibly the most unusual song on the album, På verandan vid havet is very strophic in character, almost like a dramatic monologue from an opera. Interestingly, the lyrics only mildly suggest this sort of thing:

Do you recall the sigh of the shimmering waves,
that they had finally reached
Only an earthly coast, not the shores of eternity?

Do you recall a melancholy glimmer from heaven’s
inextinguishable stars?
Ah, to the fate of decay even they must yield in
the end.

Do you recall a silence, when everything was as
though sunk in the yearning for eternity,
Shores and sky and sea, everything as though
with a presentiment of God?

By contrast the next song, I Natten or At Night, is the most lyrical, although set to a relatively sparse (and dark) orchestration. Once again, Gardner brings out the work’s colors and moods very well. We end with Come Away, Death (Kom nu Hit, Död), quite unusually orchestrated by the composer in his last year of life for baritone, harp and strings. It is a fitting finish to one of the most deeply satisfying musical journeys it has been my pleasure to take.

This recording is a gem. Treasure it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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