SIBELIUS Songs (complete) • Helena Juntunen (sop); Anne Sofie von Otter (mez); Monica Groop (mez); Dan Karlström (ten); Gabriel Suovanen (bar); Jorma Hynninen (bar); Bengt Forsberg (pn); Love Derwinger (pn); Folke Gräsbeck (pn) • BIS 1918 (5 CDs:Read more 356:21 Text and Translation)
The foldout box housing this set bears the block letter “I” on its spine, signifying the exact midpoint of BIS’s Sibelius Edition; this is Volume 7, and the arrayed volumes, which also continue to unfold the gorgeous nature photo shown as a wrap-around on each box, now spell out “JEAN SI” on the shelf. As we have come to expect from the Edition, this volume of songs with piano can almost be described as “more than complete.” Sibelius published about 100 songs altogether: 84 in 16 opus-numbered groups, and another 16 or so without opus number. In addition, BIS also includes Sibelius’s own arrangements for voice and piano of a number of works originally written for voice and orchestra, as well as fragments of early songs not completed, unpublished songs recently discovered, and, as an Appendix to the volume (disc 5), alternative or preliminary versions of over a dozen others. The core of the collection consists of the contents of three previously issued BIS CDs: BIS 457 and 757, with von Otter and Forsberg, recorded in 1989 and 1994–95; and, BIS 657, with Groop and Derwinger, recorded in 1994. Almost all of the remaining items were recorded in 2008, and are making their first appearance here.
The great majority of Sibelius’s songs are set to Swedish poems; not only did Sweden have a much greater literary tradition than Finland did, but Swedish was also the composer’s first language. Sibelius’s favorite poet, judging by his choice of texts, was Johan Ludvig Runeberg, a nature poet whom Barnett calls “Finland’s national poet”; about a quarter of the songs are Runeberg settings. Sibelius did not begin writing songs until 1887 or 1888, toward the end of his student years, so this volume does not include the large number of student works and exercises found in the Chamber Music, Piano Music, and Violin and Piano volumes (Vols. 2, 4, and 6, respectively). He tended to write songs sporadically in groups through much of his career: after the initial burst of 1888–92, periods of activity in song composition included the years around the turn of the century, when Sibelius produced the last few of the Seven Songs, op. 17, and all of opp. 36–38, about 20 songs in all, including most of his best-known; and, the years 1908–11, the time of the Fourth Symphony, and a period in which Sibelius endured repeated surgeries resulting from an incorrect diagnosis of throat cancer. The last major group of songs comes from the World War I years, when he and his family faced great financial difficulties and of necessity he wrote mostly miniatures. Among these are the four groups of six songs each, opp. 72 (the first two of which are lost), 86, 88, and 90, his last bearing an opus number.
In all, von Otter sings about half the songs, including the two sets of Runeberg songs, opp. 13 and 90, that form bookends of Sibelius’s “official” song canon. Her warm, rich mezzo suits well many of the “Romantic” songs of opp. 17, 36, and 37, but she is also appropriately animated in the lighter, salonish German songs of op. 50, and in complete control in the op. 3 Arioso, a work of 1911 that Sibelius had to pass off as an early composition when he offered it to a local publisher instead of Breitkopf und Härtel, his usual publisher. BIS gives no word on why von Otter was not entrusted with the remaining items.
Groop, also a mezzo, has a less seductive sound than von Otter; then again, she is given relatively less rewarding repertoire: the Five Christmas Songs, op. 1 (again a misleading opus number), the bleak op. 57 songs of 1909, the extant four from op. 72—a polyglot mixture of the usual Swedish with one Finnish and one German setting—and, probably the finest of the batch, the six songs of op. 86. Most of these are rarely performed, and while I prefer von Otter’s singing, Groop’s performances are certainly more than adequate.
The two singers recently recorded in the remaining sets are a treat. Soprano Juntunen expresses a wide range of moods in the demanding Five Songs, op. 38, the darkest and most ambitious of the turn-of-the-century songs; she also impressively reprises her Volume 1 performance of Luonnotar in Sibelius’s own voice-and-piano arrangement. She shares with baritone Suovanen the Two Songs, op. 35, of 1908, perhaps the most musically radical of Sibelius’s works in this format. Suovanen sings both versions of the two songs from 12th Night, op. 60, the original with guitar and Sibelius’s arrangement with piano, and is most impressive in the Eight Songs, op. 61, of 1910. These are small tone-pictures with elaborate piano parts that do much to set the mostly dark moods; Suovanen easily manages the songs’ difficult tessitura, sometimes bringing to mind the young Fischer-Dieskau. He is also brilliant in Sibelius’s voice-piano version of The Rapids-Rider’s Brides. BIS has introduced other terrific new baritones, notably Tommi Hakala, but Suovanen is definitely one to watch! Tenor Karlström makes only three brief appearances, but acquits himself well; Hynninen, a veteran of the Edition, makes a cameo appearance in the preliminary versions of three of the op. 13 songs.
There should have been an elephant in the room, in the person of Tom Krause, whose complete set of the “canonical” Sibelius songs was issued on a five-LP set by Argo in the early 1980s, and appeared again on Decca CDs in 2004. To my shock, I found that this set is no longer available. Krause, whose musicianship had grown immeasurably since his 1963 single disc of Sibelius songs, would be a formidable rival in a number of these songs, several of which are really better suited to male voice because of the texts; and, the clearly “female” songs in the set were done by the imposing team of Elisabeth Söderström and Vladimir Ashkenazy. If you have, or can find, the Decca, odds are that, like me, you will prefer Krause in some items and von Otter in others.
As in previous volumes, BIS gives an insightful essay by Barnett (in five languages); texts in the original language and English translation; and, the five discs for the price of three. Owners of the Decca set may still want this if they’re really serious about Sibelius’s songs; both sets offer many beauties and many insightful performances. Hard-core Sibelians will want this for the material that is not included in the earlier set—mostly because the manuscripts had not yet come to light. Collectors who have been acquiring volumes of The Sibelius Edition all along need no further urging at this stage.