Tuesday 28 April 2015

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir directed by Heikki Seppänen bring many fine sonorities and great accuracy to the complete works for mixed choir gathered together on a new disc from Ondine

This year is the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ www.sibelius.fi birth which will, no doubt, bring many releases to celebrate the event. There is little, if anything, that has not been recorded including three sketches from his tantalisingly lost eighth Symphony http://theclassicalreviewer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/sibelius-eighth-symphony.html

What is useful is a collection such as that now released by Ondine www.ondine.net that gathers together Sibelius’ complete works for mixed choir especially in such fine performances as these. This new 2 CD set features the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir www.epcc.ee directed by Heikki Seppänen.

ODE 1260-2D
Such is the inclusivity of this set that there are pieces that have been taken from various other larger works that feature sections for mixed choir. This collection also includes songs for music festivals organised by the Folk Education Society, songs for schools, as well as patriotic songs, hymns and student works.  

However, the first disc opens with the rather better known Rakastava, Op. 14, (The Lover) (1893/1898) that comes to us in a number of versions including this arrangement for mixed chorus a cappella.

There is a fine blend of voices from the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in this finely controlled performance. There are some lovely moments as well as some wonderful handling of the often tricky word setting.  Mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstedt and baritone Arttu Kataja provide fine solo contributions.

The four songs for mixed choir taken from 6 Songs, Op. 18 bring a beautifully expressive Sortunut ääni (The Voice Now Stilled) (1898), Venematka (The Journey by Boat) (1893/1914) full of forthright singing, yet finely nuanced, observing every dynamic with some fine part writing, a particularly attractive Saarella palaa (Fire on the Island) (1895/1898) with this choir bringing lovely sonorities and Sydämeni laulu (Glade of Tuoni) (1898/1904) showing superb control with lovely textures as well as spot on precision in this gentle little song

Min rastas raataa, JS 129 (The Thrush's Toiling) (c.1898) again shows this choir’s precision and fine intonation in this setting that swings between buoyancy and thoughtfulness.

Carminalia, JS 51a (1898) originally written for children’s choir, consists of three songs given here in versions for a cappella choir, harmonium accompaniment and piano accompaniment. Ecce novum gaudium (Behold a New Joy) [Version a cappella] rises joyfully, a direct, simple setting beautifully sung, the brief Angelus emittitur (An Angel Is Sent Out) [Version a cappella] flows beautifully with lovely layering of textures with finally the choir bringing a real beauty to the simple little setting, In stadio laboris (In Athletic Strife) [Version a cappella].

Carminalia, JS 51b brings the same settings as JS 51a in a version for harmonium which adds a homely accompaniment that takes us into the atmosphere of a small Finnish church. Carminalia, JS 51c is again the same setting only this time with simple piano accompaniment, the last song particularly rousing.

There follows a number of settings for mixed choir dating from 1888 to 1917 that range in mood from reflective to rousing.

Kotikaipaus, JS 111 (Homesickness) (1902) has a sad melody with some lovely flights from the soprano section and there is a rousing - Isänmaalle, JS 98a (To the Fatherland) (1899/1900) (1900 Version). After Hur blekt är allt, JS 96 (So Faded Everything Is) (1888) there is a direct and forthright När sig våren åter föder, JS 139 (When Spring Is Born Again) (1888) followed by Tanke, se, hur fågeln svingar, JS 191 (Thought, See How the Bird Swoops) (1888).

The flowing Ensam i dunkla skogarnas famn, JS 72 (Alone in the Dark Forest's Clasp) (1888) brings a fine blend of voices from this choir before Ack, hör du fröken Gyllenborg, JS 10 (Ah! Listen, Miss Gyllenborg) (1888). Työkansan marssi, JS 212 (March of the Labourers) (1893) again has a directness with some lovely sonorities though a little repetitive. In Soitapas sorea neito, JS 176 (Play, Pretty Maiden) (1893-94) the choir swirl around, out of which the tenor Tuomas Katajala rises adding a really unusual touch.

There is a rousing Juhlamarssi, JS 105 (Festive March) (1894/1896), a lovely, beautifully blended Aamusumussa, JS 9a (In the Morning Mist) (1898) and, after
Uusmaalaisten laulu, JS 214a (The Song of the Men of Uusimaa) (1912) a slower reflective Kallion kirkon kellosävel, Op. 65b (The Bells of Kallio Church) (1912).

After the gentle Drömmarna, JS 64 (Dreams) (1917) the first disc concludes with Män från slätten och havet, Op. 65a (Men from Plain and Sea) (1911), full of fine textures and such a feeling of longing.

The second CD opens with Songs for Mixed Choir from the 1897 Promotion Cantata, Op. 23 (c.1897-1898) written for the academic degree ceremony of the University of Helsinki in 1897. The full score and some of the orchestral parts are lost but Sibelius later arranged some of the cantata for mixed choir a cappella.

There are ten pieces starting with Me nuoriso Suomen (The Journey Continues) that has a joyful directness with fine textures from the choir. Tuuli tuudittele (Wind, Cosset Our Boat) brings a more atmospheric feel as baritone Arttu Kataja sings over the lovely choral part before mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstedt joins, adding quite an emotional punch. Both combine with the choir and the music rises in drama.

Oi toivo, toivo sä lietomieli (Hope, That State Which So Consoles Me) is finely controlled with some expert choral singing and Jenny Carlstedt adding a fine touch, there is the rather resigned sounding Montapa elon merellä (Many Pitfalls Await Us on Life's Road), the reflective Sammuva sainio maan (Noble Deeds and Wisdom) where the mezzo brings her fine voice as she rises out of the texture and a lovely, direct Soi kiitoksesksi Luojan (Let Our Sweet Songs of Thanks).

Female voices take the lead in Tuule, tuuli, leppeämmin (Blow Softer Now, Breeze) before the mezzo Jenny Carlstedt joins with the male voices and Oi lempi, sun valtas ääretön on (O Love, You Genial Child of God), buoyant with reflective moments finely brought out.

Triangle, cymbal and bass drum take our attention, adding a dramatic turn to Kun virta vuolas (Like a Surging Stream) before Oi kallis Suomi, äiti verraton (Precious Finland) a kind of hymn to Finland, finely sung and rising up at the end.

Den 25 Oktober 1902: Till Thérèse Hahl, JS 60 (October 25th 1902: To Theresa Hahl) (1st Setting) and Den 25 Oktober 1902: Till Thérèse Hahl, JS 61 (October 25th 1902: To Theresa Hahl) (2nd Setting) are two settings of the same text written for a friend, a prominent organiser of Finnish choral music to texts by Karl Wasastjerna. Though Sibelius wrote another setting, the poet not happy with the first, the composer preferred the original.  The first is nicely shaped and sung with much care, the second rises up more in the opening reflecting the words ‘the song rang out’ and continues to reflect a more outgoing nature.

Ej med klagan, JS 69 (Not with Laments) was written for the funeral of Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt. It has the feel of a work for a public occasion with these fine voices providing some lovely layers of sound. Kansakoululaisten marssi, JS 103 (March of the Primary School Children) is pretty straightforward yet sung here with an admirable restraint.

Kantat, JS 107 (Cantata) is a beautiful, thoughtful piece with fine use of voices; the brief Nejden andas (The Landscape Breathes) from Op. 30 is lovely but probably needs to be in its original setting. Terve ruhtinatar (Hail, O Princess) from Cantata, JS 104 is even shorter but works well enough on its own.

The 3 Songs for American Schools, JS 199 are sung in English, the first The Sun upon the Lake Is Low is a direct yet effective setting of Walter Scott; A Cavalry Catch with piano accompaniment is rousing but of no particular artistic merit, though well sung here and Autumn Song is more reflective with a nice rhythmic flow with piano accompaniment.

Koulutie, JS 112 (The Way to School) has beautifully controlled dynamics followed by the short setting Skolsång, JS 172 (School Song) that jogs along nicely with fine crisp phrasing.

Den höga himlen, JS 58a (The Lofty Heav'n) is a fine hymn sung with a direct simplicity, always with fine sonorities and On lapsonen syntynyt meille, JS 142 (A Child Is Born unto Us) adds a little rhythmic skip to the flow of this Christmas song, beautifully done. Joululaulu (En etsi valtaa, loistoa) (A Christmas Song)  Op.1 No. 4 rises to some lovely moments in each of the three verses with soprano, Kaia Urb rising up out of the texture, adding a lovely little lift. On hanget korkeat (High Are the Snowdrifts) Op.1 No. 5 is a direct little Christmas song, sung with terrific precision.

This set concludes with two versions of Finlandia, Op. 26 for Mixed Chorus in F Major and for Mixed Chorus in A-Flat Major. Both bring the famous tune with this choir beautifully blending the harmonies in the most effective F Major version and the final version in A flat major bringing a lighter, more spirited sound, brighter and receiving the same fine care.

This choir under its conductor Heikki Seppänen bring many fine sonorities and textures combined with great accuracy. They provide a lovely sound to the simplest, most direct of these settings. They receive an excellent recording from Järvenpää Hall, Finland and there are informative booklet notes as well as full texts and English translations.

This is a most welcome gathering of all of Sibelius’ works for mixed choir. Inevitably there are pieces of less interest but many will surely wish to acquire this fine new set.

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