The spirit of Finland in Sibelius music

When asked by his publisher to explain the source of inspiration for his tone poem Tapiola, Sibelius responded thus: Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests/ Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams/ Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God / And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

The northern spirit of Finland so expressively depicted in the music of that nation’s greatest composer is evident in this symphonic work commissioned and premiered by Walter Damrosch in 1926 with the New York Symphonic Society. So it is with the other works included in this superbly varied CHANDOS (CHSA 5217) release.

Luonnotar is a tone-poem for soprano and orchestra. The 1913 work was dedicated to the Finnish soprano Aino Ackté – Richard Strauss’s “one and only Salomé” – who premiered it in its original form before Sibelius arranged it for voice and piano.

Based on Finnish mythology, the words come from the Kalevala, and they celebrate the Spirit of Nature and Mother of the Seas. Sibelius’ first language was Swedish and most of his earlier settings had been to Swedish texts, except Luonnotar, which is entirely in Finnish.

Rakastava (The Lover) is an orchestral suite inspired by a collection of Finnish folk poetry – a literary cousin to the Kalevala. Vårsång (Spring Song) is a single-movement tone poem written in 1894. In both these early career works Sibelius evidences complete mastery of orchestration and an unpredictable gift for harmonic and melodic inventiveness.

Sibelius created Debussy-influenced incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande in 1905. It was first performed in 1905, three years after the Paris premiere of the opera of the same title and conducted by the composer. The eight brief excerpts included in this CD reveal a lyrical strain not often heard in the often muscular music of Sibelius.

Throughout the CD Edward Gardner magisterially leads the Bergen Philharmonic drawing all kinds of nuance from Sibelius’ familiar Tapiola and from the less familiar and most impressive Rakastava, Luonnotar, Vårsång and Pelléas och Mélisande.

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen is luminous in her singing of the challenging Luonnotar and in the brief Song of the Three Blind Women from Pelléas och Mélisande.