Sibelius: Luonnotar, Pelléas och Mélisande, Tapiola - Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5217
Classical - Orchestral
Sibelius: Luonnotar*, Pelléas och Mélisande*, Tapiola, Rakastava, Vårsång
Lise Davidsen* (soprano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)
Following their acclaimed recordings of Schoenberg with Sara Jakubiak and Britten’s Peter Grimes with Stuart Skelton, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic turn their attention to the music of Sibelius. Written in 1913 for the diva Aino Ackté, the tone poem Luonnotar draws on text from the Finnish national epic poem, the Kalevala. Its virtuosic demands are ably met here by award-wining soprano Lise Davidsen, who also feature in the Suite from Pelléas and Mélisande, music re-worked by Sibelius from his incidental music written for the first performances of Maeterlinck’s play in Helsinki, in 1905, in Swedish. The tone poem Tapiola, from 1926, is Sibelius’ last great masterpiece and evokes the forests of his native Finland. The programme is completed by a pair of much earlier works, Rakastava (the Lover) and Vårsång (Spring Song). The album was recorded in Surround Sound and is available as a hybrid SACD.
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Review by Graham Williams - June 24, 2021
Arguably, the most compelling reason for acquiring this excellent Chandos all Sibelius SACD from Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is their gripping performance of Luonnotar, the composer’s Tone Poem for Soprano and Orchestra, with the phenomenal Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen as the soloist. Luonnotar is not only one of the composer’s greatest works but also one of the least performed, thanks in part to the taxing demands of the vocal part with its two octave tessitura. The lyrics tell the story of the universe’s creation as related in the first Runo of the Finnish National epic, the Kalevala. Up to now, on disc, the leader in the field on SACD has been the immaculately sung 2005 version on Ondine from Soile Isokoski Sibelius: Luonnotar, Orchestral Songs - Soile Isokoski , but I would venture to suggest that Davidsen’s compelling account is in every respect its equal and in some respects even finer. Davidsen has a voice of amazing power and range yet she uses it with great sensitivity. Her top notes are projected with an apparently effortless laser accuracy and she brings an other-worldly vocal quality to this haunting work while Gardner and the Bergen PO’s accompaniment is even more sharply etched than that on the Ondine version.
The composer’s final, and many would say greatest, orchestral work Tapiola, completed in 1926 is a huge challenge for both conductors and orchestras. Gardner’s is the fourth version to appear on a multi-channel hybrid SACD and joins a very strong field of accounts from Vladimir Ashkenazy, Okko Kamu and Hannu Lintu each of whom provide vividly recorded and idiomatic performances of this masterpiece, to which Gardner’s may now be added. His is both a commanding and thrilling reading of the score that is magnificently executed, thanks to the committed playing of all sections of the Bergen orchestra and expertly captured on this finely detailed Chandos recording.
Amongst the many scores that Sibelius wrote for the theatre, the one written in 1905 for Maeterlinck’s play ‘Pelleas and Melisande’ is rightly regarded as the finest. The nine movement suite from the incidental music heard here is only the second modern recording to appear on SACD and will surely be welcomed for the fine characterisation and atmosphere engendered by Gardner in this beguiling suite. This performance has one key advantage over most other versions on disc in that rather than having the vocal line being assigned to the cor anglais, Melisande’s song from Act III ‘The Three Blind Sisters’ is sung here with melting purity and simplicity by Lise Davidsen.
Gardner’s programme is completed with engaging performances of two of Sibelius’s early tone poems Rakastava (the Lover) and Vårsång (Spring Song). The former dates from 1893 and was re-worked in 1911-12 while the latter appeared in 1893 and revised in 1895 and 1902. Neither work is well represented on SACD and though they are not among the finest examples of the composer’s oeuvre, they are nevertheless attractive pieces that deserve a hearing especially when so beautifully played and recorded as here.
Luonnotar, the Pelleas Suite and Vårsång were recorded in the Grieghallen, Bergen in May 2018 by the usual Chandos team (Producer: Brian Pidgeon and Sound Engineer: Ralph Couzens) while, presumably due to pandemic travel restrictions, a team from LAWO Classics recorded the other works with equal prowess in February 2021.
Altogether this is another fine addition to Edward Gardner’s impressive discography with his front rank Bergen orchestra so if the programme appeals do not hesitate.
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