Sibelius songs -
'... BIS must be warmly congratulated on a magnificent set ...'
Piety could hardly go further than in this set of five CDs. The last of them is devoted to preliminary and alternative versions, most recorded for the first time, of songs already heard in their final form. There are keyboard versions of original settings, a handful of fragments (the shortest lasts three-quarters of a minute and deals with only two of the fourteen lines set later), and early songs involving both violin and cello. Sibelius might have wrinkled still further his massive brow and pursed his lips even closer at such a compendium. But now that we can no longer produce a great composer, patient scholarship such as this remains the best we can do and deserves nothing but gratitude.
There are well over a hundred songs here, all accomplished, most readily enjoyable, and some plumbing characteristic Sibelian depths. Many deal with the world of nature, whether the evanescent darting and hovering of a dragonfly, the lengthening shadows of evening, or the turbulent, rainbow-shot waters of foaming rapids. Play of the Birds from 1891 unites the enticing call of a thrush with longing for the beloved.
Listen -- Fågellek (Seven Songs Op 17)
(CD1 track 25, 0:28-0:57) © 2008 BIS Records AB
In I am a Tree by Ernst Josephson, the naked branches stretching from a trunk blasted by storms long only for a final death in the snows.
Listen -- Jag är ett träd (Eight Songs Op 57)
(CD3 track 8, 1:00-1:47) © 2008 BIS Records AB
Localities touched on can be as various and surprising as the brittle frivolities of Versailles or yearning for an Indian nirvana. Tennis at the Trianon proceeds coquettishly until from behind a nearby tree there peers the leering head of a man from the gutter, ready to slink off and sharpen his knife to sever heads. It is a chilling vignette.
Listen -- Bollspelet vid Trianon (Six Songs Op 36)
(CD2 track 7, 0:32-1:02) © 2008 BIS Records AB
There are two versions of the Indian song, the first slightly shorter. Both conjure the glories of Akbar's architectural dreams, the savagery of the jungle, the beauty of an Indian girl, and the longing for escape from the coldness of western eyes.
Listen -- Jag ville, jag vore i Indialand (Five Songs Op 37)
(CD2 track 16, 1:01-1:57) © 2008 BIS Records AB
Sibelius plays with the shade of a serenading Romeo or the heart's blood of the young man that created the scented beauty of a Narcissus (this happens to be his last original solo song, dating from 1925). More sinister and telling, though, are the evocations of Justinian's empress Theodora, still the treacherous courtesan in her glittering splendour. The final setting of a poem that hints at Wilde's Salomé is no less grim and spare than its preliminary version.
Listen -- Teodora (Two Songs Op 35)
(CD3 track 2, 0:08-1:33) © 2008 BIS Records AB
And the only English text treats of that Thaïs who perpetuated through generation after generation the fatal allure associated with Helen of Troy.
Listen -- Hymn to Thaïs, the Unforgettable
(CD4 track 32, 0:01-0:43) © 2008 BIS Records AB
It would be misleading not to touch on the lighter Sibelius, as enshrined in five enchanting Christmas Songs or a 1919 birthday tribute for granny. Few songs are more enchanting than the duet Tanken ('The Thought'), written to celebrate another family occasion, the silver wedding of his brother-in-law.
Listen -- Tanken
(CD4 track 6, 0:02-0:30) © 2008 BIS Records AB
Equally bewitching is the waltz written in 1920 for a Christmas magazine that describes office girls bustling like bunches of bananas on the way to their typewriters and telephones.
Listen -- Små flickorna
(CD4 track 28, 0:50-1:50) © 2008 BIS Records AB
The admirable recordings cover two decades from 1989. There is not the slightest point in trying to list the virtues of the six singers, three pianists, two cellists, violinist and reciter (these last four in songs from 1888, when Sibelius was in his early twenties). The composer has been served with a wholly admirable devotion throughout a fine body of music that is by no means familiar. Again BIS must be warmly congratulated on a magnificent set, steered towards fulfilment by the meticulous scholarship of Andrew Barnett.
Copyright © 23 May 2009
CD INFORMATION: THE SIBELIUS EDITION - 7: SONGS