Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Stunning performances of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite and Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph) from Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra from BIS

A new release from BIS Records  brings together recordings by Osmo Vänskä  and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, Op.22 and Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph), op.15.

Skogsrået was originally a melodrama for speaker, strings, horn and piano written, in 1894, for a concert in aid of the Finnish Theatre. Sibelius soon reworked it as an orchestral tone poem but it was never published. Although it received another performance in 1936, it was not until 1996 that this early work was resurrected again by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra who recorded it for BIS along with the melodrama version (BIS-CD-815)

BIS now gives us Vänskä’s 2006 recording of the orchestral version of Skogsrået, along with his 2006 recordings of the Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen´s Return. These have been re-mastered and placed with his 2007 recordings of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island and Lemminkäinen in Tuonela making a complete Lemminkäinen Suite all on hybrid SACD and in stereo and 5.0 Surround sound.

I must at once admit to being something of an enthusiast for Vänskä’s Sibelius recordings and find this release no less exciting.

Lemminkäinen Suite, Op.22 (Four Legends from the Kalevala) (1893/96), inspired by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, was subjected to a number of revisions, as late as 1939 in the case of Lemminkäinen in Tuonela. In the first part, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, the way Osmo Vänskä shapes the opening is exquisite. His pacing and phrasing is surely ideal. As the tempo picks up he gets such fleet playing from the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. When the second subject appears, relaxing the mood, one realises just how much tension he has developed. As fine as my other BIS recording of this suite is (Järvi and the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra) this performance gains in tautness, with Vänskä’s fine shaping of phrases and a really organic development. The wonderful Lahti Symphony Orchestra weave some lovely individual instrumental sounds as they build to a fine climax before the restrained coda.

Right from the opening of The Swan of Tuonela., Vänskä does not allow the music to drag, keeping a forward flow. Yet his timing is not particularly faster than others, it is the feel of movement that he brings. Vänskä brings an icy, clear atmosphere as does the Lahti’s cor anglais, Jukka Hirvikangas. Eventually a degree of passion is allowed to slip in but otherwise all is chill. Threatening timpani emerge before the orchestra leads a melancholy melody forward. More hushed timpani thunder before the music fades.

The fine string section of the Lahti Orchestra open Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, shimmering, swaying and slowly rising; Vänskä paces this to perfection. And what a great first climax when it comes. The taut playing retains its tension between climaxes right up until the tremendous climax around the midpoint. Later there is beautifully hushed playing with Vänskä slowly and imperceptibly changing from hushed to the light, rhythmic trot that appears. There are fabulous shimmering strings, pointed up by timpani that rise up as Vänskä allows the music to rise up before gently tailing off to the coda.

Lemminkäinen’s Return kicks off at a fine pace with more taut playing, keeping up the tension as the music dashes ahead. Vänskä never loses sight of all the little details and nuances before rising to a terrific climax to end.

This is very fine indeed, a Lemminkäinen to cherish.

Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph), op.15 (Ballad for Orchestra) (1894/95) is based on a poem by the Swedish author Viktor Rydberg and tells of how the hero is led astray by dwarfs in the forest and falls in love with a wood-nymph, thereby forfeiting all worldly happiness.

Wagner’s influence is certainly present at times whilst Sibelius’ distinct voice still shines through with echoes of Lemminkäinen weaving through some passages. Vänskä draws some inspired playing when the music rises up from the repeated theme. He keeps up the pressure, slowly building on the theme as it increases in dynamics and tempo. There are many strands weaving through to the climax when the music broadens with brass and timpani to herald a triumphant motif. The tension is relaxed when the music falls back with more fine, hushed playing from the Lahti Orchestra. There is a lovely cello melody accompanied by a quiet orchestra pointing up the rhythm before the music slowly builds again, inexorably to its tremendous climatic coda.

This is a stunning performance of a work that certainly sticks in the mind.

When first released Skogsrået was quite a find and, even listening again it doesn’t lose any of its magnetic appeal. With such a fine performance of the Lemminkäinen Suite this release makes a very attractive combination.

There are excellent booklet notes from Andrew Barnett.

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