INKPOT#78 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: SIBELIUS Karelia Music. Press Celebrations Music. Tampere Philharmonic/Ollila (Ondine)

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Karelia – Complete Score (1893)
Restored by Jouni Kaipainen, 1997
Scenic Music for a Festival and Lottery
in Aid of Education in the Province of Viipuri.
Press Celebrations Music (1899)

Tellu Virkkala Anna-Kaisa Liedes sopranos
Juha Kotilainen baritone
Tampere Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra
conducted by Tuomas Ollila

Includes vocal texts in Finnish and Swedish with translations in English.

[78’45”] full-price

by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcasetm

Hot on the heels of the BIS recording of Kalevi Aho’s completion of the Karelia Music (reviewed here) came this alternative from Jouni Kaipainen. I am imagining the rush of the scholars, recording artists and the production team… Anyway, no introductions here (for that please refer to the other review), so let’s get on with the comparison:The Karelia Overture begins in brisk pace, very immediate and forward in character in this intepretation. There is an appealing dignified feel, as of an army marching joyously from fields of victory, accompanied by the birdsong and sunlight of the countryside. The very clear instrumental lines are detailed well in the recording, as is the precise playing, demonstrating Sibelius’ transparent orchestration from triangle “tings” right down to the orchestral pedals. The Karelia march is performed with rigour, avoiding childishness, satisfying like in the Lahti version. The upbeat to the reprise of the first theme is committed, with a rush of majestic confidence and joyous energy blazing from brass; even the timpani ostinato roll underneath is very satisfying. A very unified performance overall, sometimes even better than the Lahti version – but always well-matched. Score 1:1 (Ondine:BIS)

The Runic song in Tableau 1 is sung by sopranos – compared to the men singing in the BIS recording, this one is just too formal, with a hint of a lullaby. After hearing the male voice version, this one really takes getting used to. Nevertheless, I am very impressed with the orchestral support, particularly the woodwind choir humming in the background. The pace is again brisk; the violent crash as the song is interrupted by the sounds of war is less over-dramatised here. Score 1:2.

Viipuri Castle - Picture from Virtual Finland website Ah, my favourite: Tableau 2, “The Founding of Viipuri Castle” – this time, the tempo chosen is far slower than the Lahti version. The result, either because my ears are now too used to (and addicted to) the more magnificently strident BIS recording, is rather sluggish. It makes me wonder what tempo the composer indicated. Thinking about it, I guess, this slower tempo fits better the fact that it is supposed to be a hymn sung by monks. It takes a bit of getting used to – for me about two months of listening – and is ultimately not a bad interpretation. In contrast, Ollila takes the great hymn in the second half at a pace just a touch faster than Vänskä, the latter whose sense of rubato in this majestic tune is far, far superior. 1:3.

Above/left: Viipuri Castle. Picture from Virtual Finland.

Tableau 3, introduction of the Duke of Lithuania and the Intermezzo. After an atmospheric and finely delivered account of the introduction, the Tampere orchestra produces a reading of the Intermezzo which is a little too straight in pulse for me. It reminds one slightly of a strict marching band, with rigid rhythm, sensed even in the violin ostinato. Vänskä’s account is more swaggering, joyous and spontaneous. Consider the original part for the tambourine: in the long roll in the middle, Vänskä’s wonderful percussionist does a perfect crescendo which complements the trumpet-theme beautifully by uplifting the atmosphere. Ollila’s tambourinist, on other hand, beats a straight, nondescript roll, adding very little to the score. This is a startling demonstration of the power of interpretation.

Baritone Juha Kotilainen sings with feeling and grace in the sad song from the Ballade, but I’m afraid I found the pace again just a touch too fast, robbing some degree of atmosphere from the score. The solo horn in Vänskä’s orchestra has a softer tone more suited to the sweeping melancholia of the music; the Tampere horn solo also plays in a more legato style which I find less effective. Furthermore, the BIS recording distances the singer and horn much much more atmospherically. The poignant pizzicato background is also less effective in the Ondine recording. No doubt for me, the score is now 1:5.

Generally, the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra excel in the faster music, such as in Tableau 5. Here they produce a powerful, exciting, quite Wagnerian portrait of the Pontus de la Gardie (especially fine is the rushing strings of the opening), before launching into a stately rendition of the Alla Marcia. In this tableau, Vänskä’s version is somewhat more punching, perhaps even violent, but I enjoyed both interpretations. 2:6.

Jean Sibelius, portrait by Eero Jarnefelt Reconstructor Jouni Kaipainen has done a good job with the opening of Tableau 6, in my opinion. As he notes, all that Sibelius (right) left was a timpani roll. The string fugue that opens “The Siege of Viipuri” is missing its lower parts. Kaipainen’s solution is exciting and texturally clear – I must admit there is something very Baroque about its rushing, bouncing character which appeals to me. The Tampere Orchestra, brass and strings taking turns over the fugue theme, create much to admire. Let’s make it 3:6.

The great boon of this newer completion is in fact the final tableaux, Nos.7 and 8, depicting the reunion of Finland culiminating with the national anthem. The tragi-heroic tone of Tableau 7 is played with great atmosphere, the Tampere strings humming with noble sorrow. I was most pleased to find out that Kaipainen had scored the anthem, Maamme (“Our Land”) for choir with orchestra. Why Kalevi Aho didn’t do this for the BIS version is a bit of a mystery. Isn’t it obvious? Well, whatever the case, the Tampere forces make a smashing and magnificent ending to the Karelia Music here. The thundering entry of the anthem, followed by the gutsy rendition by the choir, makes me want to sing along:

Oi, maame Suomi, synnyinmaa,
soi sana kultainen!
Ei laaksoa, ei kukkulaa
ei vett, rantaa rakkaampaa
kuin kotimaa t pohjoinen,
maa kallis islen!

Our land, our land, our Fatherland,
Sound aloud, O name of worth!
No mount that meets the heaven’s band
No hidden vale, no wave-washed strand,
Is loved as is our native North,
Our own forefathers’ earth.

The Press Celebrations Music was written six years after Karelia for a similar fund-raising event, again a thin disguise for its nationalist content. By this time, the Russian authorities were tightening their grip on the freedom of speech of the Finns, curtailing the printing rights of as many as four newspapers at one point. In response, the Finns quite literally staged what the CD notes call a “unique mass protest” – the “Press Celebrations” of 3rd to 5th November, 1899 – 100 years ago.Among the activities was a “gala entertainment” variety show of sorts; again, despite the pricey tickets, the venue of the Swedish Theatre was packed. The main event of the show on November 4th was a series of historical scenes staged by various reputable artists. Again, the then 33-year-old Jean Sibelius provided the music, which was again probably largely ignored by the noisy audience.

The Press Celebrations Music, sometimes called the Music for the Press Pension Fund, were later recast as the Scnes historiques I, op.25 (1911), the tone poem Finlandia, op.26 (1900). (Scnes historiques II, op.66 of 1912 is unrelated).

The Press Celebrations Music begins with a Preludio on a stately striding theme, both pastoral and ceremonial in atmosphere. This is contrasted with a burst of trumpets heralding for attention. The series of tableaux proper begins with the epic and joyous Song of Vinminen. This protagonist of the Kalevala is depicted singing of the lands, gods and creatures of Finland. The scenic music surveys the tableaux with remarkable concision; it is quite varied in character, with contrasting sections which betray the visual kaleidoscope of the music’s purpose.

The thematic equivalent of “The Founding of Viipuri Castle” in Karelia is Tableau II, “The Finns are Baptised”. The scoring for basses and low brass immediately evokes the sonority of the organ; even the harmonies are steeped with religious solemnity, supplemented by tolling bells. Much more serious than “Viipuri Castle”, this tableaux accompanied a vision of a host of angels handing a Finnish maiden sacred symbols for the Finnish people.

'March of the Men of Pori' (1897-1900), by Albert Edelfelt Tableau III, set in the 1550s, tells of “Duke John at Turku Castle”; done Spanish-style (nevertheless still characteristic Sibelius), tambourines and all, this is a melodious and highly enjoyable piece. Tableau IV begins in elegiac mood, which is sharply contrasted with a war-like trumpet theme as “The Finns in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)” is foreshadowed. Muted trumpets and anxious string ostinati intensify the atmosphere, but a stately march ensues instead, ending the piece in militaristic pomp. Tableau 5, “The Great Hostility” relates the period of suffering associated with the Great Northern War. The ominous music has hints of En Saga and Wagnerian opera.

To be honest, the music as a whole is not particularly appealing heard on its own. Its purpose to accompany visual drama is all too obvious. Despite the committed playing of the Tampere musicians, I’m not yet intent on listening to all this more than a few times. Except Finland Awakes, of course.

As many already know, Finlandia first existed with that title, and as it suggests, the music portrays aspects of Finland’s rise: the national poets Runeberg and Snellman, Elias Lnnrot (responsible for compiling the Kalevala), the youth of the country… and a locomotive (as in steam engine train) – all gather in this picture of national awakening.

Wait a minute… Locomotive? Yup, some years back I had read that the original version of Finlandia had something to do with a train. Raising my eyebrows incredulously, I brushed aside the remark as some strange joke. But it’s true and as Kaipainen notes, few probably realise that “Finland’s second (some say “real”) national anthem” has a steam engine hurtling away furiously among its pictures. But when you listen to the music, it more than dawns on the listener that there is REALLY a train in the music, and that Sibelius, master translator of sounds, captured it perfectly. Consider the the chugging strings and the accelerating bass figure as the ominous intro gives way to the main body of the work – and the Tampere orchestra does a smashing portrait here!

Sibelius in 1939 Well, for this much-welcomed world premiere, the Tampere performers have done a great job, far better than in Karelia. Their playing is totally committed, the refinement and energy evident and exciting. The Finlandia Hymn soars beautifully (wonder if they could have included the choir, which otherwise sings only on one track), and the reprise of the fast section is very exciting indeed.

The ear familiar with Finlandia will be stunned and delighted by the new music as the familiar notes suddenly bank away into a different harmony and hurtle into the ending sequence sonically depicting the train speeding triumphantly away! The orchestration is a tour de force: the trumpets rattle with motoric energy while the string tremolos whistle with joy as the heavy brass and basses boom and rumble in victorious pride to the end.

The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase takes great pleasure in watering those tiny little violet flowers that have been growing in his frontyard garden.

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