December 30, 2021


Sibelius: Lemminkäinen in Tuonela; Leevi Madetoja: Kullervo; Uuno Klami: Kalevala Suite; Tauno Pylkkänen: Kullervo Goes to War. Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Saint-Saëns: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 3; Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso; Havanaise; Romance, Op. 48; “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from “Samson et Dalila.” Jinjoo Cho, violin; Appassionato conducted by Mathieu Herzog. Naïve. $16.99.

Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen; Respighi: Il Tramonto; Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht. Adèle Charvet, mezzo-soprano; Appassionato conducted by Mathieu Herzog. Naïve. $16.99.

     Having been under Russian rule since 1809, Finland was by mid-century chafing at oppression and ready to begin asserting its own national consciousness. The appearance of the Kalevala in 1849 (in its final, extended form, after a shorter, earlier version that dates to 1835) became a rallying point for Finnish artists, although it was only half a century later, with the emergence of the Swedish-speaking Sibelius as the grand champion of Finnish music, that Elias Lönnrot’s compilation of poems finally came into its own. Names from the Kalevala are now widely known, even if the specific legends are not: Kullervo and Lemminkäinen are invariably thought of as mythic Finnish heroes, although in fact their stories are darker, more nuanced and less one-dimensionally heroic than many people who know only their names realize. It is very intriguing to hear the ways in which different composers have thought about and illustrated elements of the Kalevala, and the new BIS recording featuring the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Dima Slobodeniouk is a fascinating journey indeed. The works here date to the period from 1897 to 1943, with the earliest being Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen in Tuonela – heard here in the world première recording of its 1897 revision, which is shorter than the 1895 version and omits the harp. This movement of the Lemminkäinen Suite illustrates the strangest story: seeking to kill the Swan of Tuonela (whose musical portrayal is the suite’s best-known movement), Lemminkäinen is himself killed and dismembered – then reassembled by his mother and returned to life. Evocative and told on a suitably large scale, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela neatly traverses territory from the spooky to the heroic. It is not, however, the main attraction of this very well-recorded SACD, because what rivets a listener’s attention is the way the other three, less-known Finnish composers handle material so long and intimately associated with Sibelius as well as with Finland itself. Single-movement works, essentially concert overtures, by Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) and Tauno Pylkkänen (1918-1980), do not try to replicate the broad approach of Sibelius, although Madetoja’s Kullervo clearly shows Sibelius’ influence in its orchestration and dramatic structure. Pylkkänen’s Kullervo Goes to War, in fact written in wartime (1942), is also suitably dramatic and has near-operatic textures and gestures: Pylkkänen, a student of Madetoja, was later to become known primarily for his operas. But if the works of Sibelius, Madetoja and Pylkkänen have noticeable (and audible) similarities in their treatment of the Kalevala, the suite by Uuno Klami (1900-1961) shows the possibility of a different direction. This five-movement, half-hour work, written in 1933 and revised a decade later, was musically inspired less by Sibelius than by Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. In fact, its opening movement, Maan synty (The Creation of the Earth), sounds remarkably like the opening of Stravinsky’s ballet – although the other movements develop in different directions, while retaining some of Stravinsky’s mixture of orchestral opulence and rhythmic angularity. Especially interesting is the tender but somewhat gloomy fourth movement, Kehtolaulu Lemminkäiselle (Cradle Song for Lemminkäinen), which captures the mood of much of the Kalevala very effectively. Taken as a whole, this disc shows both the importance of the Kalevala to the national identity of Finland – which did not become an independent nation until 1918 – and the work’s importance to the country’s musical development.

     The pieces on two new Naïve CDs featuring Mathieu Herzog and the ensemble he founded in 2015, Appassionato, have less of overt nationalism about them, but all show particular ways in which national traditions and the music that flows from them continue to have an impact on performances and audience perceptions. There is poise, delicacy and a fine sense of balance between solo and ensemble on the all-Saint-Saëns disc featuring violinist Jinjoo Cho. Saint-Saëns’ music has an immediately identifiable aural palette whose coloration is distinctly French as well as being indicative of the composer’s unique style. The justly famous quotation, “I make music as an apple tree makes apples,” really does point to the ease with which pieces of all sorts flowed from Saint-Saëns – and helps explain his unwillingness to attach himself to the developments that become prominent in his later life and flowed more from Germanic than French thinking. There is something operatic about much of Saint-Saëns’ instrumental music, which makes the arrangement on this disc of a Samson et Dalila aria for violin and viola (the latter played by Caroline Donin) a particularly interesting encore after fine performances of music that is generally well-known. The first and third violin concertos make for an interesting contrast, the first (actually written second) more overtly virtuosic and the third altogether subtler. It is in the third concerto that the pairing of Cho and Herzog really shines, the work’s melodiousness and carefully balanced impressionism playing out beautifully between soloist and ensemble and within the ensemble itself: Appassionato, a chamber orchestra, brings to all this music the sound of an enlarged chamber group whose give-and-take is worthy of the personal nature of smaller, more-intimate cohorts. Elements of French temperament as well as of Saint-Saëns’ own compositional predilections abound on this disc, with plenty of panache in the display pieces – the familiar Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is genuinely fiery – but with considerable tenderness in evidence as well. There is something about hearing a very fine French ensemble playing Saint-Saëns’ music that brings out French sensibilities in the works – and that applies even with a Korean violinist, indicating that the national character of this music is only one part of its significance and attractiveness.

     Herzog and Appassionato actually have no difficulty with repertoire beyond that of France, and less trouble than Saint-Saëns himself had with the concept of pushing to and even beyond the limits of tonality. This is clear from Appassionato’s idiomatic and very well-structured performances of music by Richard Strauss, Respighi and Schoenberg. The surprise on this CD is the least-known work, Respighi’s Il Tramonto, which dates to 1918 and offers a poem called “The Sunset” by Percy Bysshe Shelley in a setting for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra (or string quartet plus double bass). The poem itself is quite Romantic (and small-r romantic as well), but Respighi’s musical language moves past 19th-century traditions to create emotional expressiveness that strains to encompass the depredations of a new century within delicate harmonies and a very carefully developed illustration of the sadder and more contemplative elements of Shelley’s poem. As for the Strauss here, Metamorphosen dates to the Second rather than First World War – he wrote it in 1944-1945 – and contrasts positive and hopeful sections with sad and depressive ones more strongly than does Respighi’s work. Metamorphosen draws directly or indirectly on music of the past, notably the funereal second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, and Herzog and Appassionato manage to have the piece sound like something of a homage to earlier composers (Bach and Mozart as well as Beethoven) while also delivering the work with the clarity befitting a piece intended for 23 strings – the sort of complement that fits Appassionato very well. It is interesting that this CD offers the three works in reverse chronological order – starting with Strauss, moving to Respighi, and concluding with Schoenberg’s 1899 Verklärte Nacht – because Schoenberg’s entirely tonal (although highly chromatic) work helped lay the foundations for his later experiments in and codifications of twelve-tone music, which date to 1923 and thereafter. The complexities of musical nationalism and, indeed, of nationalism itself, became quite pronounced and parlous during the time periods of the works on this CD. Herzog’s ability to find and bring forth the foundational similarities among the three pieces – emotional resemblances rather than ones of specific compositional technique – indicates that although different national musical heritages may have led musicians to come at late-Romantic and post-Romantic concerns in different ways, many of the underlying feelings and experiences of the composers were shared in ways that transcended national boundaries and artistic traditions.

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