Notes and Editorial Reviews
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The Bis Sibelius Edition was launched in September 2007. Exactly four years later, in September 2011, the final box was released.
Bis have thus taken the last stride and completed its founder’s pilgrimage to record every note Sibelius wrote. Fanfares and fireworks are in celebratory order. That said this box is inevitably pretty miscellaneous as is reflected prominently in its title. Had the twelfth and thirteenth volumes been swapped around we would have ended on a more obviously affirmative symphonic note. This process was never about theatrical effects so there is no cause for
Robert von Bahr’s beatific vision is encompassed by thirteen boxes which sit with their spines spelling out Sibelius’s name across the CD shelving. In this it is rather like the Nikolai Miaskovsky symphony project launched by Olympia and landed by Alto. Those who have held back can obtain all 68 CDs in the Bis Sibelius Edition in their over-sized boxes for £374.95. I do wonder whether, for the Sibelius 150 festivities in 2015, Bis will be tempted to reissue the whole set in a deluxe package. Pure speculation.
The present box includes three music discs – none of them packed tight - and another of music by Sibelius’s friends and contemporaries. I couldn’t get the 5:52 film of Sibelius at Home to play but that is down to my Neanderthal technical abilities. There’s a DVD of colour stills taken by Janne Gröning and juxtaposed with a selection of Sibelius’s less obscure works: a slide show with music. A 139 page booklet sets out the programme notes, track-list, words and translations. There’s Andrew Barnett’s standard 2006 potted biography in five languages and the Sibelius Edition leaflet uniform across the volumes. New to the scene is the 60 page Index to The Sibelius Edition. This lists every work organised in eighteen genres: e.g. Orchestra, Theatre Music, Piano, Songs. In this way one can find in which volume and on which disc and track a particular work is located as well as dates and JS numbers. One section is called The ones that got away. In this category, among sixteen entries, is The Holy Grail: the Eighth Symphony allocated JS190. Also lost is the complete score for the last of Sibelius’s three cantatas for Helsinki University (1897). We’ll not venture into the Rumsfeldian realms of works we do not know about.
The situation is agreeably complicated by another Bis issue this month: BIS-SACD-1945 which has the two Tempest suites and overture as well as Tapiola and The Bard played by the Lahti Symphony conducted by Sibelius veteran and Karajan protégée Okko Kamu. Clearly Bis will continue to renew the Sibelius legacy; never mind perhaps recording appendices to the thirteen volumes as new works and variants come to light.
This Edition reflects astonishing enterprise systematically carried through with love, rigour and application. We will never know all its heroes though more prominent amongst the names we do know must be Robert von Bahr, Andrew Barnett, Folke Gräsbeck, Neeme Järvi and Osmo Vänskä. Those who have not already received Finnish decorations and Sibelius medals can surely be expected to receive them. One would hope that international arts and educational organisations such as UNESCO are also carrying out their appraisals and will recognise this momentous achievement.
One should also not forget the institutions who were crucial to the project. How about the publishers Breitkopf und Härtel and Wilhelm Hansen, the National Library of Finland and the Sibelius family?
Whether in the single pedal versions on CD 1 or the double on CD 3 the Intrada Op. 111 speaks of structure and epic struggle. There’s something of the Fifth Symphony about it. The undulating gloaming of the 1931 Mournful Music has the signature of RVW’s string writing yet one can easily imagine both of these late pieces being orchestrated by a person with the echt Sibelian touch. The Two Pieces JS153 are sombre and hymnal. The Three Introductory Antiphons for baritone, mixed choir and organ again ring with earnest Protestant commitment aided by the sturdy singing of Jörma Hynninen. The second piece setting sections of Revelations 14 is slightly more animated with some unworldly note transitions. The final section is more passionate although this in turn shows up the weave in Hynninen’s veteran voice. After a rather dull Lord’s Blessing comes the fabled Masonic Ritual Music op. 113 in 12 pieces variously for solo organ, organ and baritone, male voice choir with organ and alone. Some of this is frankly pretty generalised stuff; others are truly impassioned such as Adjusting the Altar and First Degree, Procession – the latter reminiscent of the Sanctus Fortis expostulation in Gerontius. Salem is a simple curvaceous hymn which plunges into some stygian territory rather akin to Lemminkainen in Tuonela. The 1946 Ode to Fraternity has radiant and undulating writing for the choir. The Hymn includes a defiant tenor with harmonic tension between the choir and the organ and a thunderous peroration. The 1927 Marche Funebre has overtones of the Fourth Symphony while the contemporary Ode strides along in jollity. The last of the Masonic movements is an a cappella male voice choir version of Finlandia.
There’s not much orchestral music in this box but CD 2 starts with 7:20 of the Luonnotar – Pohjola’s Daughter fragment (1905-6). The Luonnotar aspect has nothing to do with the later tone poem of the same name. It was a work that emerged from the abandoned cantata Marjatta and was in turn discarded and the material cannibalised into what amounts to a broad brush preliminary of Pohjola’s Daughter. Some of the material found expression in the slow movement of the Third Symphony and in Love Song from Scènes Historiques suite No. 2. Frankenstein joins are associated with the melting backwards and forwards between familiar and unfamiliar. It is an eccentric compendium but it’s well worth hearing. Strange combats and collisions (7:17) contrast with shards that are reminiscent of the Third and Fourth Symphonies (3.47). The Little Mermaid for reciter and string quartet is in four movements. These range across Hardyesque and Roma folk dances in which the solo violin preens and pirouettes to the heightened emotions of the Smetana quartets and in the final episode the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Folke Gräsbaeck guides us through fleeting sketches for the symphonies to inconsequential pieces for children to concert grandeur for Landscape II (1929). The seven organ brevities are quite provocative. They move between Reger, gunpowder and brooding mystery.
The third CD includes just short of five minutes of some rather Messiah-like writing for choir and orchestra – sweet and warmly brooding stuff though not really sounding like Sibelius. Glockenspiel drafts for the Kallio church carillon are played by Andrew Barnett. One is more than redolent of the Second Symphony. We then hear the bells of Kallio Church in Sibelius’s completed commission. Alternative versions of five movements from the Masonic Music are throaty, soothing and hymn-like. The Whosever Hath Love movement sounds very muck like a Christmas nowell with a dash of positive sanguine Karelian genetic material. After some miscellaneous other tracks we end with Sibelius himself conducting Andante Festivo in 1939 – not the first time it has appeared but fascinating nonetheless. How sad that like Nielsen he did not record his symphonies. The disc of a selection of music by his friends is a makeweight and though pleasing the 43 minute DVD still pics slide-show with music by Sibelius is in the same category – good to have but not decisive.
We are told that the 68 CDs that comprise the Sibelius Edition encompass 80 hours, 30 minutes and one second of music, great, provocative, good, so-so and mundane. We can now make up our own minds about which is which. The 13 boxes in any event represent a 21st century monument to a composer who lived in the two previous centuries. Appetising choices and journeys of discovery are now available to us and to future generations in lustrous and well-informed performances.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
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