Gardner Conducts Sibelius

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SIBELIUS: Luonnotar [Kalevala].* Tapiola. Pelléas et Mélisande Suite.* Rakastrava. Vårsång [Spring Song] . *Lise Davidsen, sop; Bergen Philharmonic Orch.; Edward Gardner, cond / Chandos CHSA 5217

In the wake of the deaths of such British conducting icons as Sir Colin Davis and Edward Downes, we now have Andrew Davis and Edward Gardner (along with one or two others) who are producing some really fine recordings. This one, Gardner’s latest, features only one really well-known work, that being the very familiar Tapiola. The others are all lesser known, particularly the Pelléas et Mélisande Suite. In two of these pieces we hear the hottest new property in the vocal world, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen.

When reviewing Davidsen’s performance in the new Marek Janowski Fidelio, I praised her innate musicality and her wonderful sense of drama but had some reservations regarding the actual sound of the voice, which I found somewhat edgy. On this recording, which I’ve discovered was made two and a half years prior, it is only her extreme high notes that display the edginess I heard in her Leonore. This tells me that she is already experiencing a slight deterioration in her sound. Methinks the lady pushes her voice too hard, trying (but failing) to be Birgit Nilsson. She needs to back off from the screaming and sing a bit more, as she does splendidly in this recording.

In both Luonnotar, a really splendid piece (almost a mini-dramatic cantata for voice and orchestra) and Pelléas et Mélisande, Davidsen sings with a much rounder, warmer tone through most of her voice, and her dramatic sense is equally keen here as it was on the Fidelio,. As usual, Chandos uses a fair amount of reverb on this recording, but this actually helps Davidsen’s voice while still allowing the bright, sharp colors of the orchestra to come through. I can’t say, in all honesty, that Gardner’s performances here are quite as incendiary as those of the legendary Robert Kajanus, Sibelius’ close friend and favorite conductor, but alas Kajanus died before he had the chance to record all of Sibelius’ orchestral works, though he did leave us a splendid performance of Tapiola. This version, however, comes closer to Kajanus than anyone else I’ve ever heard, and that even includes Sir Thomas Beecham. It is surely a more authentic-sounding performance than Karajan’s, with its glossy string sound and gorgeous brass and winds that, while attractive to the ear, completely miss the point of the music.

Those familiar with the visionary, forward-looking settings of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy (opera) and Arnold Schoenberg (orchestral tone poem) may find themselves puzzled, and perhaps even a bit disappointed, by Sibelius’ very Romantic-sounding 1905 setting for orchestra and soprano. Part of the reason is that he wrote it for Helsinki, a bit hurriedly since he was then in the midst of composing his Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 3. Despite the fact that the play was in French and both the composer and location of the debut Finnish, the text was translated into Swedish by the composer’s friend Bertel Gripenberg. I can’t honestly say that I find the music all that interesting or even very good, however; much of it sounds like the kind of pap they play on classical FM radio stations, even the song by the soprano. This makes the incidental music to Peer Gynt sound like Beethoven’s Egmont; it’s a bit of a wet blanket. The soprano’s song is not only simple but repetitive; she repeats the same melodic phrase over and over and over again until she simply stops. Honestly, I think Sibelius would have done better to have thrown this manuscript into the fireplace. It’s really MOR rubbish. Even Rakastava (The Lover), an early piece dating from 1893, has a bit more meat on its bones than the Pelléas music, and this isn’t really much of a prize, either. Vårsång, or Spring Song, doesn’t start out too promisingly but surprisingly opens up to become a quite powerful and emotional piece, but for me it was too little too late.

So what we have here is an album that starts out on the right foot, slips and falls on Pelléas, and then never quite finds its footing again. If, however, you enjoy Romantic drivel more than I do, you’ll probably love this album.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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