Monday, June 22, 2015

"Home Team" Sibelius

Ondine ODE 852-2 (1996)
Sibelius: 4 Lemminkänen Legends Op. 22;
Tapiola (Symphonic Poem for Orchestra) Op. 112
Leif Segerstam/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchetra

Wow! Listening to  Segerstam's vivid, highly animated performances is like hearing this music for the very first time--an experience akin to one of those magical moments of youthful discovery, all too rare in later years. I've been collecting the music of Sibelius on LP and CD for over four decades now, and these may well be some of the most singularly exciting, passionately committed performances I've ever heard.

This disc brings together early and late compositions of Jean Sibelius (1965-1957), the youthful Four Legends (of Lemminkäinen) from the 'Kalevala', Op. 22, written between 1893 and 1895 when the composer was 30, and the tone poem Tapiola, Op. 112 from 1926 when he was 61, the composer's last orchestral work before his long, three-decade silence.

Casual listeners will probably be familiar with the beautiful third movement of Op. 22, the haunting Swan of Tuonela with its darkly lyrical English Horn solo accompanied by eerily shimmering strings. There are dozens of stand-alone performances of this iconic movement, but it is always enlightening to hear it in the context of the whole. Many conductors have done the suite justice, from Okko Kamu's magnificent 1976 reading for DG to Neeme Jarvi's dynamically compelling 1984 performance with the Gothenburg Symphony for BIS. Yet, great as they are, these outings seem positively pedestrian compared to Segerstam, who takes the music at what many long-time listeners may regard as an unusually fast tempo--only to heighten its drama and linear coherence. The four movements are treated as a unified whole--and a good case could be made that this work is, in fact, a symphony in the truest traditional sense. From the lush horn chords that seem to hang forebodingly on the air in the opening bars of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari to the frenetic rush of the strings in the closing moments of Lemminkäinen's Homeward Journey, this is a truly unforgettable performance.

Likewise, Segerstam's Tapiola is a stunning epiphany! Sibelius' ingeniously mature music has often been weighed down by a kind of grim grandiosity, a glacial inertia that renders it nebulous at best, or, at worst, nearly inscrutable. Yet, while one is certainly aware of the scale and sweep of the music here, Segerstam imbues his reading with an electrifying sense of drive along with a luminous, seraphic self-possession. I've never heard a performance of this work that seemed so aggressively visceral, dynamic, driven, hair-raisingly theatrical, and downright exciting. Nor does Segerstam shrink from the innate eroticism of the score. After the inexorable, relentless build-up of tension, the deliberately-effected crescendo of the slow long line, the wild, orgasmic howls of the brass near the end almost knocked me out of my chair!

Not only is the Finnish "home team" Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra gorgeously recorded here by Ondine, capturing every detail and subtle nuance of the scores, but there is a passionate energy in the playing--a deep love--that shines through at every turn.

Enthusiastically recommended.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Happy 150th! Ole Schmidt's Nielsen

LP series: 
Unicorn KPM 7001 (1974) (Symphony #1)
Unicorn KPM 7002 (1974) (Symphony #2)
Unicorn KPM 7003 (1974) (Symphony #3)
Unicorn KPM 7004 (1974) (Symphony #4)
Unicorn KPM 7005 (1974) (Symphony #5)
Unicorn KPM 7006 (1974) (Symphony #6)
CD re-issues: 
Regis RRC 3002 (3-disc set) (2008)
Alto (Musical Concepts) ALC 2505 (3-disc set) (2013)
Carl Nielsen: Complete Symphonies 1-6
Ole Schmidt/London Symphony Orchestra

The great Danish composer Carl Nielsen was born 150 years ago this week, on 8 June, 1865, and I would certainly be remiss to ignore the occasion. You can read some of my broader thoughts about this fascinating musical figure in my recent review of Decca's 2014 Collector's Edition box set here.

Ole Schmidt's marvelous 1973 traversal of the symphonies with the LSO was released as a series of separate LPs on the Unicorn label the following year. Schmidt's was the first complete cycle to be recorded entirely in stereo, and, in many ways, encouraged major labels to take a closer look at --and a bolder chance on-- this music, thus laying the groundwork for many great records of the future. The sound is inviting, sumptuous, and vivid with a deep, resonant ambiance. The orchestral playing is impeccable. Schmidt's interpretations are, for the most part, profoundly compelling, making a near-airtight case for these ingenious, quirky, electrifying compositions. This cycle remains the benchmark for this repertory, in spite of many fine subsequent efforts (Chung, Blomstedt etc.). The last three symphonies, especially,  are Promethean in their luminous passion and implacable drive. My only complaint is with the Sinfonia Espansiva, where Schmidt inexplicably drops the ball--not to mention the taut thread of the long line-- in the finale. This is doubly disappointing given the compelling magnificence of all the rest.

The 3-disc Alto re-issue from 2013 would be a bargain at many times its modest budget price. The re-masterings (one assumes they are the same ones as on the earlier Regis set) are excellent, akin to an expert art-restorer's clean-up of a beloved Rembrandt or Titian, and the transfers are first rate.

Hearing these wonderful performances again reminded me of how I fell in love with this music--but more importantly, of why.

Enthusiastically recommended!