Sibelius From Lahti

The Tempest [Complete incidental music; sung in Finnish]
Songs with orchestra:
Höstkväll, Op.38/1
Hertig Magnus, Op.57/6
Arioso, Op.3
Demanten på marssnön, Op.36/6
Den första kyssen, Op.37/1
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte, Op.37/5Autrefois (Scène pastorale), Op.96b
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

Helena Juntunen (soprano)
Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
Juha Hostikka (tenor)
Petri Lehto (tenor)
Ville Rusanen (baritone)


Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 15 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This concert was a rather grand affair and a long one too; Sibelius played by one of the finest and most idiomatic of Finnish orchestras, the Lahti Symphony, under its long-time Chief Conductor, Osmo Vänskä.

Aged 60 Sibelius was composing as well as ever. The story of his career makes for compelling study. Beginning as a full-blooded Romantic writing choral and orchestral symphonic poems very much of their time he gradually reduced his music to its essentials of organic and structural cohesion. By 1924 he was ready to write a single-movement work that was only deemed a symphony after initial performances, his Seventh. A year later he composed his most ambitious music for the theatre and it was his incidental music for “The Tempest”, all 60 minutes-plus of it, that opened this Prom.

After a speculative and somewhat futile question from the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen as to whether Sibelius had ever composed music to this Shakespeare play the composer quickly responded to a commission under the watchful eye of the play’s producer, Adam Poulsen. It was he who broadly decided on where the music should occur during the action and one of his first decisions was to discard the opening scene in favour of a musical Prelude, which, at this Prom, was a gripping opening to an enthralling evening.

The music to the ‘Prelude’ is pure texture with no melodic aspirations at all. It is Sibelius’s most modernist expression and heralds not only the advances heard the next year in Tapiola but surely all the music he later wrote but, alas, eventually destroyed. The music to “The Tempest” is made up of 36 pieces, including songs and choral elements. Sibelius used his largest-ever orchestra including a harmonium. Some pieces are short, even to the extent of a few bars and some more extended; all make for an atmospheric environment to Prospero on his magic island. The subject conjured some pieces of pure gold from Sibelius’s fertile mind: ‘Miranda is lulled into summer’ (later known as ‘Berceuse’ in the subsequent suites Sibelius produced in 1929); ‘The Oak Tree’ (a Beecham favourite) and ‘Dance of the Slopes’ testify to a heightened imagination. The five ‘Ariel Songs’, well sung by Lilli Paasikivi, are wonderfully melodic and enshrine the substance of this mercurial creature. The ‘Entr’acte’ has a Purcellian grandeur not surprisingly based on Sibelius’s stated affection for English music from this period. All the solo parts were well projected and the large choir sang with gusto.

Sibelius himself wrote that he wanted to extend his musical thoughts beyond what he observed were mere sketches. Perhaps he so did when writing his Eighth Symphony, begun at about this time. We will probably never know given the symphony ended in the fireplace but the tone and the atmosphere conjured by the notes and the melodic inspiration all point to Sibelius firing on all cylinders. Indeed the songs and choral parts possess a quality that cries out for extended treatment, maybe in the form of a full-blown opera, just about the only musical medium Sibelius avoided. But to get the true measure of his music for “The Tempest”, and to understand its true quality, requires it to be placed in the context of the play, something that has yet to be achieved in this country.

The year before composing his Shakespearean incidental music, Sibelius completed his Seventh Symphony which, on this occasion, sounded as if it was a spiritual forebear to Prospero’s dreams and affairs of state. Vänskä moulded the music in a way that highlighted the tensions built up by the seemingly unending overlapping development of the work. The performance was more elevated than usual. Stories of Sibelius’s constant alcohol consumption during the composition can emphasis the demonic side of this work but here it was the spiritual dimension that gripped the imagination. This was not only due to Vänskä’s approach but also had to do with the quality of the performance from the orchestra. It seems that only Finns play Sibelius in a way where the constant ebb and flow of the music sounds so flexible and natural.

When it was premiered in 1924 the Seventh would have seemed old-fashioned by nature of its title. Today informed audiences can place it in the context of the efforts of Sibelius’s contemporaries – frivolities from Paris, balmy experiments from New York and the dying embers of post-Wagner German art. Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony is not the only masterwork of its time but it endures, fascinates and instructs like few others.

In between these two titans of Sibelius’s maturity came seven orchestral songs sung by Helena Juntunen in the first three, Lilli Paasikivi in the next three and the two together in the final one.Juntunen launched the majestic “Höstkväll” (Autumn Night) with stunning beauty of tone and was throughout in winning form. Paasikivi sang three of the most famous of Sibelius’s songs; all were utterly Romantic and moving. A stunning concert.

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