Written by: Colin Anderson
“BIS begins the release of a 13-volume edition of all the music that the great master ever created – from the symphonies and tone poems to chamber music and songs. As well as the published works, the edition includes rare original versions and world première recordings of works from his youth – material which to a large extent is unique to BIS.”
Volume 1: Tone Poems [including alternative versions]
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
5 CDs for the price of 3
6 hours 29 minutes
Volume 2: Chamber Music I – The Complete String Quartets, Piano Trios and Piano Quartets
6 CDs for the price of 3
7 hours 18 minutes
Volume 3: The Complete Music for Voice and Orchestra: Cantatas – Melodramas – Orchestral Songs
6 CDs for the price of 3
7 hours 28 minutes
Volume 4: The Complete Piano Music I: Original Works and Piano Transcriptions
Folke Gräsbeck (piano)
5 CDs for the price of 3
6 hours 33 minutes
Volume 5: Theatre Music: Original Versions and Concert Suites
6 CDs for the price of 3
7 hours 45 minutes
Volume 6: Violin & Piano
5 CDs for the price of 3
6 hours 3 minutes
The idea is a simple one, but also exhaustive – by March 2010 (preliminary date), BIS will have issued “all the music that the great master ever created.” The “great master” is Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). BIS’s 13 volumes will be “thematically ordered”. And in covering “every-note-he-ever-wrote” (to quote Robert von Bahr, Managing Director of BIS), it means that not only do we have the inspiring symphonies and tone poems but also the extensive chamber music and piano music – much of which Sibelius suppressed – and which remains very much on the periphery of our perception of the composer.
Each box consists of an extensive biography of Sibelius written by Andrew Barnett – the “Sibelius at a glance” section is a really good idea (listing events and music-written on a year-by-year chronicle) – and Barnett also writes about the music in a second booklet. His English originals are translated into Finnish, French, German and Japanese. On the spine of twelve of the thirteen boxes is a single letter, which will spell out JEAN SIBELIUS. How will the thirteenth be inscribed? That issue is “Miscellaneous” and will include organ works and Masonic Music.
Volume 1 is of Tone Poems and includes such masterpieces as Tapiola, Night Ride and Sunrise, Pohjola’s Daughter, The Oceanides, En Saga, the Lemminkäinen Legends (the latter including The Swan of Tuonela) and, with soprano Helena Juntunen, Luonnotar. Performances are first-class and are mostly from Sibelius-stalwarts Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra with Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony in the two sets of Scènes historiques and the Final Version of Cassazione. Rest assured the Original Version of the latter is included, as are all extant versions of En Saga and the Legends – and it makes fascinating listening to compare Sibelius’s first, intermediate and final thoughts. Sometimes, as in the extended Original Version of En Saga, the listening pleasure is complete in itself. Furthermore, the shorter works range from the ‘light’ to the ‘serious’ in the form of Spring Song to In memoriam – and both of those pieces have two versions.
With the small caveat that Vänskä’s recording of the Legends in their non-definitive state is slightly compromised by a technical problem that occurred at the sessions and could not be corrected in post-production, The Sibelius Edition could not get off to a better start.
The second volume is devoted to Chamber Music. There will be another chamber music issue; and Piano Music will also run to two boxes – an idea of just how much music for these forces that Sibelius composed. Chamber Music I consists of six CDs and embraces string quartets, piano trios and piano quartets. A lot of it is ‘early’ (1883-1891) and in some cases is without titles and tempo markings. BIS has added provisional titles where necessary.
This is where we really start to delve deep into Sibelius’s creativity – and also to hear his influences. Beethoven and Dvořák come to mind in the short Molto moderato – Scherzo (for string quartet), a charming dance-like piece that never sounds remotely Sibelian, however likeable it is. Many of the pieces are short – for example, the 40-second Scherzo (and even this has been completed by Kalevi Aho!) or [Four Themes] – square brackets indicate BIS’s titling – none of which gets to a minute in length. [33 Small Pieces], with one exception, are each also less than a minute. Yet, all this minutiae, however much a shaving each piece might be, has a distinct flavour and a character. And if Sibelius’s early music is often derivative – and Classical – one senses real individuality, too. There are also substantial four-movement string quartets, three of them before we arrive at the well-known ‘Voces intimae’ (from 1909), a fully mature work, here including, as a separate track, the work’s “preliminary ending”. Throughout, the Tempera Quartet gives thoroughly dedicated accounts.
But the highest standards of performance and recording can almost be guaranteed from BIS. Thus Jaakko Kuusisto, Satu Vänskä (alternating violinists), Marko Ylönen and Folke Gräsbeck tackle Sibelius’s music for piano trio (it is Gräsbeck who has the task of sifting through Sibelius’s copious pieces for piano). The opening Trio (in three concise movements from 1883) might pass for Haydn. As for the medium of string quartet, Sibelius jotted down many short works – a Minuet there, an Allegro there – and also left three significant works, not least the 35-minute Trio in D (from 1887). Sibelius was not short of ideas! Whether trifle or extended, all the music here is never less than enjoyable and sometimes more than that. Maybe, if Sibelius’s name wasn’t appended to it, some of the bagatelles wouldn’t get a second listen – yet it is all interesting to the Sibelius aficionado and often pleasing on its own terms.
The sixth and last CD that makes up Chamber Music I is music for Piano Quartet (recorded in a too resonant acoustic): of the piano trio artists, delete cellist Ylönen and add Taneli Turunen and also pianist Peter Lönnqvist (some pieces demand four hands) and harmonium-player Harri Viitanen. The Piano Quartet in D minor (1884) is impressive; Ljunga Wirginia shows Sibelius as a burgeoning composer for the theatre (this is music that had operatic designs); the Scherzo in E minor is a powerful piece; and a couple of pieces require the wheezy timbre of an harmonium, a welcome contrast.
In recordings made between 2002 and 2005, it’s wonderful to have this chamber collection so handsomely documented.
The 6 CDs that are included in Volume 3 comprise The Complete Music for Voice and Orchestra and includes “Kullervo”, Sibelius’s vast five-movement, quasi-operatic symphony for two vocal soloists, male-voice choir and orchestra, to texts from the “Kalevala”, the Finnish epic poem; Osmo Vänskä’s recording of it stands among the very best. Strange that Sibelius should almost disown this extensive and evocative work.
Sibelius’s range – and surprises – include [Two Chorales], straight out of Leipzig as magnificent Bach-imitations. “Rakastava” (The Lover) is relatively familiar in its orchestra-only version; for tenor, male-voices and strings, there is a real fireside contentment – and how indigenous the YL Male Voice Choir is to text and sonority (a really profundo bass-voice sound). “Cantata for the University Graduation Ceremonies of 1894” is a 30-minute occasional piece that is recognisably Sibelian while being ideal for the occasion it was written for, so too “Cantata for the Coronation of Nicholas II”, while “The Wood-Nymph” (which includes a narrator and a pianist) responds to Sibelius’s gift for dramatic description. “Serenade” for baritone and orchestra is a swaying nocturne with the suggestion of breeze through the trees.
Sibelius didn’t quite get to grips with ‘Grand Opera’, but his 35-minute one-act “The Maiden in the Tower” begins with an open-air scene-setter of an Overture before a series of vignettes enact the story. (BIS has done a fine job in removing some technical gremlins from the original pressing of this release without harming any ‘true tones’.)
Numerous ‘settings’ for male-voices, baritone (the redoubtable Jorma Hynninen) and narrator all add to our appreciation of Sibelius’s melodic and theatrical gifts (if not operatic ones) – “Fool’s Song of the Spider” is a miniature masterpiece, wonderfully conveyed by Hynninen. Time to mention that with Osmo Vänskä, Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula sharing the conducting, these rare off-cuts from Sibelius’s canon are in the best possible hands.
Enjoyable and unusual combinations include “Song of the Athenians” for boys’ and men’s voices with a group of brass and percussion – a lively processional – and pieces such as “Snöfrid” and “The Origin of Fire” have taken on currency through other recordings.
The songs are wonderfully powerful – a great slice of Jean Sibelius’s art – full of imagery and emotion and including the visionary “Luonnotar”. Superb singing from all the soloists.
With a passing question as to whether Finlandia – in its chorus and orchestra version – should have been included here, this third volume is an exemplar of shedding light on a great composer’s less-suspected output. Presentation is exemplary and the thick booklet includes complete texts.
Volume 4 is the first instalment of Sibelius’s Piano Music, played by Folke Gräsbeck. That this is the ‘first’ volume of keyboard works and occupies 5 CDs gives an indication as to the (perhaps unsuspected) scope of Sibelius’s activities in writing for the piano. ‘Sketching’ is perhaps nearer the mark. In this first volume of piano music, the opening disc has no less than 77 tracks! The bulk is devoted to “[A Catalogue of Themes, 50 Short Pieces]”. Why the square brackets? “Sibelius left some of the pieces on these CDs without title or tempo marking. These works are listed here with provisional titles [in square brackets], assigned objectively based on their musical character and style.” So advises BIS’s typically handsome annotation. Fear not, if Sibelius’s piano music seems a forbidden area to you, everything you need to know is to be found in the booklet.
In any case, you might be immediately smitten by the opening tracks; nothing remotely Sibelian about them, but very attractive salon pieces akin to Schubert (especially) and Brahms letting their respective hair down. Sibelius was a great tunesmith and he could entertain, too. One should not forget [11 Variations on a harmonic formula]. As for [Catalogue of Themes], very few get anywhere near a minute in length, but each shows a fecund imagination and a composer setting down building blocks, however slight.
Across these five discs, one does a lot of reading of titles alone. A collection of trivia? No, there is much that is just plain likeable, whoever the composer is – and while some interest in this music lies in the fact that it was written by one of the supreme composers, and one is curious about it, there are also some more substantive works, such as the Six Impromptus (Opus 5) – note that this is a published work – that report a degree of Tchaikovsky’s influence.
That Sibelius thought enough to bring some piano pieces to the public speaks volumes; also included here are the Sonata in F (Opus 12) and Ten Pieces (Opus 24) – the latter set plays for over 40 minutes. So, it’s not just a collection of jottings! And there are the composer’s transcriptions of his music, too – such as Finlandia, some of the “Karelia” score as well as Valse triste, the latter in ‘Preliminary’ and ‘Definitive’ form, and The Dryad.
The dedicated Sibelian will want this set, of course, so too I suggest the general lover of piano music with a bent for tunefulness and pleasure. Folke Gräsbeck’s dedication to the cause is total – all those manuscripts to peruse! Let’s be honest, this isn’t ‘great’ music, but it is unfailingly attractive on its own terms as well as being a fascinating insight into how a great composer prepared or simply notated some ideas. Occasionally, one immediately recognises the ‘true’ voice of this composer, something familiar, only to find it is a sketch for the First Symphony; and, then, there are further published pieces (such Ten Bagatelles, Opus 34, and Ten Pensées lyriques, Opus 40), all of which have something both personal and pleasing for the listener to lend an ear to.
In Volume 5, Theatre Music, we reach some of Sibelius’s greatest achievements. The beauty of this box is that the composer’s original incidental music is housed with the familiar suites, the latter being ‘tidied’ as necessary and re-scored for the concert hall; how Sibelius was able to take some brilliantly inventive music beyond the playhouse and create lasting favourites for the concert hall (and recording!). Fascinating, too, to listen to what Sibelius initially crafted to complement the stage-action.
Just to list “The Tempest” and “Pelléas et Mélisande” is to mention two of Sibelius’s finest scores; wonderfully suggestive and atmospheric. Added to these masterpieces are Sibelius’s scores for “King Christian II”, “Kuolema” (which includes ‘Valse triste’), “Swanwhite” (Strindberg), “Jokamies” (Everyman, by Hofmannsthal), “King Christian II”, “Belshazzar’s Feast” and “Scaramouche” (the last-named being over an hour’s worth of delightfully fantastical music composed for a pantomime, and not unlike Tchaikovsky’s for The Nutcracker at times); together these works offer some attractive and memorable music that allows one to really appreciate Sibelius’s range and his ability to enter into the spirit of each project.
With the conducting shared between two Sibelius stalwarts – Neeme Järvi and Osmo Vänskä – then the set is graced by very sympathetic performances. This is a mouth-watering release, some superb, often astounding music that when considered as a whole gives a very particular slant on Sibelius’s greatness. (This box is without a letter on its spine – it is, of course, the space between the ‘N’ of Jean and the ‘S’ of Sibelius. Good thinking!)
Volume 6 offers music for Violin and Piano. And just to prove – again – how much music Sibelius wrote (and kept under wraps), the statistics for this box are that the 5 CDs play for six hours and consist of 101 tracks. Many short pieces, then, but all are attractive as well as varied in mood – and given the violin was Sibelius’s instrument, written with fluency and understanding. There are bigger works, too, including a couple of sonatas, the four-movement one in A minor being rather similar to Kreisler pastiche. As before, some of the pieces are not entitled, so the good folk at BIS have come up with suitable names – Menuetto, Tempo di valse, Andante elegiaco – that sort of thing.
Sibelius even went to the trouble to make ‘with-piano’ transcriptions of the two versions of the Violin Concerto; both occupy CD 3. They make fascinating listening, the Original Version recorded in this form for the first time (of course BIS has already recorded it with orchestra and that will re-appear in Volume 8 of the current enterprise). Madoka Sato is the violinist here and plays both scores with real accomplishment; the pianist is Folke Gräsbeck. Other violinists in this set are Jaakko Kuusisto and Nils-Erik Sparf, the latter accompanied by Bengt Forsberg.
There is plenty of mature music, too, pieces published with opus numbers in the 70s and 80s as well as some of his last offerings, opuses 115 and 116. To complete another revealing and rewarding issue, there are first recordings of six appendices appertaining to the Violin Concerto. You can’t say that BIS isn’t being anything other than ultra-complete – and the presentation overall is typically fastidious and the recording quality first-rate.