Finlandia – Karelia Suite – En Saga – Tapiola – Four Legends
Elisabeth Söderström, soprano (Luonnotar)
Vladimir Ashkenazi, conductor
Pohjola’s Daughter – Night-Ride and Sunrise – Luonnotar
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Horst Stein, conductor
The works of Jean Sibelius collected in this two disc set originally belonged to two different releases, but the reissue allows to have in one box set all the most important symphonic poems of the Finnish composer.
Finlandia (the symphonic poem which gives the title to the entire collection) was written in 1899 to celebrate the independence of the Grand Duchy of Finland from Russia and was destined to become a symbol of freedom and irredentism. The same theme may be recognized also in the First Symophony, which unfortunately is not included in this set.
The Karelia Suite was one of Sibelius’s earliest works, since it was commissioned in 1893 by the Viipuri Students’ Association for a lottery to aid the education in the Viipur Province, and was premiered in Helsinki with the title Karelia Music.
The other pieces are based on the Finnish national epic poem, Kalevala (also written Kalewala), compiled in the XIX century by Elias Lönnrot, a physician, botanist and linguist, from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology. It consists of more than twenty thousand verses and is divided into five songs. Its themes influences many composers before Sibelius, among the others Filip von Schantz, Robert Kajanus and Karl Müller-Berghaus. Sibelius’s works influenced by Kalevala are Luonnotar, a tone-poem for soprano and orchestra (Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature and Mother of the Seas) composed in 1913 and rearranged for voice and piano by Sibelius himself in 1915; Tapiola (the name refers to the spirit of the forests), written in 1926 for the New York Philarmonic Society; Pohjola’s Daughter, composed in 1906, and the Lemminkäinen Suite (or the Four Legends, as they are called in the album), written in the early 1890s.
I have to confess I have not found another recording where both performances are so inspired and engaging. Vladimir Ashkenazi and Horst Stein direct their respective orchestras with magnificence and splendour and rarely you can find elsewhere the same vivid, brilliant and characteristics sounds. The enchanting of North European mythology and music is clearly conveyed, alongside with the spirit of independence which pervades compositions as Finlandia.
I think that Decca had a good idea when it decided to combine the two recordings, because they are extremely similar in their purpose and complete each other in a natural way. I have also to mention the excellent performance of soprano Elisabeth Söderström in Lounnotar, which is the most precious achievement of the set, even if the other pieces are extremely good too. Söderström seems completely at ease with its high tessitura which discourage many of her colleagues. After all, she is the one who, after singing it in Helsinki in 1955, said that it was one of the best things she did in her life.