Saturday, 8 June 2013

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra in great Sibelius performances, showing a conductor and orchestra at their peak.

There is no shortage of recordings of the music of Jean Sibelius (Johan Julius Christian Sibelius) (1865-1957). www.sibelius.fi/suomi/index.html yet newly issued recordings from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra on the Hallé label www.halle.co.uk/products.aspx have had me hearing Sibelius afresh.

Following up on his recordings of Sibelius’ Symphonies 1 and 3 http://www.halle.co.uk/products.aspx?view=page&pageno=3 , this new release from Sir Mark Elder and his fine orchestra www.halle.co.uk  features Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49; The Oceanides, Op.73 and Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43.

 
CD HLL 7516


Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49 was completed in 1906 and received its first public performance in St Petersburg, 29th December of that year with Sibelius conducting the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. Though it has become one of Sibelius's most popular works it took scholars until the 1990s to work out its stages of composition. Sibelius had been working on a number of compositions at the time including an oratorio Marjatta.

Somewhere from this material he began composing what was to become Pohjola’s Daughter. Initially he called the earliest form of the work "Luonnotar" (Daughter of Nature) but this was not his later work, from 1913, of the same name. Although by 20th August 1905 Sibelius was writing to a friend that he was composing ‘a work in a ‘quasi oratorio style’ (Marjatta), by the end of August the plan had changed. Sibelius was invited to Heidelberg to conduct his works there in November, and he decided to prepare Daughter of Nature for the occasion. It appears that the start of Marjatta may have been eventually used for what was to become Pohjola's Daughter, completed by summer 1906. The scholar Timo Virtanen has studied the drafts and shown that during the last weeks of composition Sibelius made changes to the work, apparently in order to adapt it to the Kalevala story of Väinämöinen and Pohjola's Daughter.

The tone poem, taking a story from the Finnish epic Kalevala, depicts the old, white-bearded Väinämöinen who spots the beautiful daughter of the North, Pohjola, seated on a rainbow, weaving a cloth of gold while he is riding a sleigh through the dusky landscape. Väinämöinen asks her to join him, but she replies that she will only leave with a man who can perform a number of challenging tasks, including building a boat from fragments of her distaff. Väinämöinen attempts to fulfil these tasks, through his own expertise in magic, but he is eventually thwarted by evil spirits when attempting to build the boat and injures himself with an axe. He gives up, abandons the tasks and continues on his journey alone.

The rich cellos of the Hallé open Pohjola’s Daughter setting the atmosphere, dark and brooding. Elder brings subtlety in the way he slowly brightens the constantly fluctuating mood whether dark and brooding, lighter, or cold and glacial. There is lovely detail in the central section where Väinämöinen has his first sighting of Pohjola’s Daughter and some terrific playing from the Hallé as the climax is built up. The coda is superbly controlled. This well recorded performance was made in 2007 at Bridgwater Hall, Manchester.

Unlike Pohjola’s Daughter, Sibelius’ Oceanides, Op.73 (Aallottaret) does not draw on the Kalevala. The Oceanides of the title refer to the nymphs who inhabited the waters in Greek mythology. Dating from 1914, immediately before his Fifth Symphony, it was commissioned for the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut, at which Sibelius conducted the premiere performance.

In this tone poem, Elder again shows how superbly he treats every little mood and nuance in the music. Right from the beginning we have tremendous emotional pulls in different directions. Elder maintains a terrific tension right through, building it inexorably to its climax when suddenly the tension breaks and we have a dark resigned coda. This is a great Oceanides. The recording from BBC Studio 7, Manchester in 2006 is extremely good.

Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43 dates from 1902, though a theme from the finale is thought to date as early as 1899. It is known for certain that Sibelius was sketching a motif which ended up in the slow movement of the second symphony while he was in Rapallo, Italy, in February 1901.

It was in its first version that it was first performed in Helsinki on 8th March 1902 with the Orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Sibelius. A final version was first performed in Stockholm on 10th November 1903 conducted by Armas Järnefelt.

Elder opens the Allegretto with an underlying tension and control that, despite the relatively relaxed quality of the music, hints at something deeper. Elder observes little dynamics and rubato that add so much to the drama and when he ratchets up the tension, the Hallé respond magnificently with the brass bringing cragginess. Elder shows just how much variety there is in this movement, pausing then surging forward, at times quiet and gentle, then dramatic.

In the second movement Tempo andante, ma rubato, a feeling of Finnish magic is brought to the pizzicato opening, as though depicting some kind of mythical scene.  Elder’s pacing is beautifully done, holding back to produce a wonderfully tense atmosphere, yet providing terrific climaxes. Some other performances seem like a run through by comparison, such is Elder’s control of this great movement.

The strings of the Hallé are first rate in the Vivacissimo. The timing as we go from the faster strings section to the lovely woodwind second subject is brilliantly done. The music reaches a lovely swell in the orchestra before leading to the Finale: Allegro moderato with a wonderful sweep. Control and tension appear as the music drops with Elder keeping the pace under control, slowly restraining until allowing brass outbursts. He really whips up a storm as the music surges forward, halfway through, to top out in the wonderful heroic theme. There is a terrific coda where it is good to hear such a top world class orchestra on top form.

This is great Sibelius from a conductor and orchestra at their peak. The live recording made in 2012 at Manchester’s Bridgwater Hall is first rate, with the lower frequencies particularly well caught. The tremendous applause at the end of the symphony is kept in – as indeed it deserves to be.

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