September 21, 2023


Overtures from Finland: Music by Jean Sibelius, Uuno Klami, Erkki Melartin, Leevi Madetoja, Arnas Järnefelt, Ernst Mielck, Selim Palmgren, Robert Kajanus, and Heino Kaski. Oulu Sinfonia conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $21.99 (SACD).

Korngold: Four Pieces from “Much Ado about Nothing”; Wagner: Albumblatt; Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 17; Jenő Hubay: Scènes de la Csárda No. 3; Dohnányi: Gypsy Andante from “Ruralia Hungarica”; Joseph Achron: La Romanesca; Hebrew Dance, Op. 35, No. 1; Leo Zeitlin: Eli Zion; Bloch: Avodah; Kreisler: Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta. Danbi Um, violin; Amy Yang, piano. AVIE. $17.99.

     The name of Sibelius is synonymous with Finnish music – to such an extent that a correction is in order, showing that he was scarcely the only Finnish composer and was not even the only one in his own time. A new Chandos SACD featuring Rumon Gamba and the Oulu Sinfonia is intended to provide that correction, and does so – with the proviso that the disc proves Sibelius to be the pre-eminent Finnish composer in his time period and in the mostly brief overtures included on the recording, even though it also shows he was scarcely the only one working in this form. Sibelius actually owes his early success in large part to Robert Kajanus (1856-1933), founder of the first permanent professional orchestra in the Nordic countries – what is now the Helsinki Philharmonic. Kajanus was a tireless advocate not only of Sibelius but also of other Finnish composers, such as Ernst Mielck (1877-1899), who dedicated to Kajanus the Dramatische Ouvertüre heard here (Mielck died of tuberculosis at age 21). It would have made sense to arrange this disc chronologically by the dates of the composers, or by the dates of the compositions, and that would have been quite helpful for listeners interested in assembling for themselves a sense of Finnish music in the Romantic and post-Romantic eras. Unfortunately, the SACD undercuts itself by presenting the music in no discernible order whatsoever – the hodgepodge nature of the release is its worst feature. It opens, as if setting the overall scene, with Sibelius, specifically his Karelia Overture (1893), unfortunately given a rather heavy-handed (although well-played) performance here. Next is a concert overture called Nummisuutarit, written in 1936 by Uuno Klami (1900-1961) and based on a play called The Cobblers on the Heath. Then there is a 1904 overture by Erkki Melartin (1875-1937) to a play based on the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale. Next is Comedy Overture (1923) by Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947), followed by the first of two pieces by Sibelius’ brother-in-law, Arnas Järnefelt (1869-1958) – Ouverture lyrique (1892). Listeners who have stayed sequentially with the SACD will by this time have hopped around multiple decades to hear uniformly well-made but often rather formulaic overtures that range from “pure” music to theatrical entries – and there is more of the same to come. Mielck’s 1898 work, a particularly effective piece, follows Järnefelt’s and is followed in turn by a 1903 overture by Selim Palmgren (1878-1921) for a play based on the “Cinderella” fairy tale. Why the two fairy-tale-based pieces are not juxtaposed is one of the many questions about this disc’s odd arrangement. After all this, listeners finally get to hear Kajanus’ Overture sinfonica, a late work (1926) that nevertheless harks back clearly to the Romantic era in its expressiveness. Then the disc concludes with two short pieces. One is Prélude, Op. 7, No. 1 (1902) by Heino Kaski (1885-1957) – not an overture but a pleasant arrangement of a pleasant little piano piece. And then, at the end, is the second Järnefelt work offered here – Præludium (1900), whose bright delicacy closes the recording in fine style. The disc is in some ways more important than it is musically satisfactory: all the music is definitely worth hearing, and the exploration of multiple Finnish composers is certainly worthwhile, but the mishmash that is the presentation of the material makes for a confusing auditory experience that is by no means as involving or informative as it could easily have been with some better planning and more-thoughtful sequencing.

     A new AVIE release featuring Danbi Um and Amy Yang is a puzzling grouping as well, the works on it having their Romantic origins and brevity of structure in common – being similar in those ways, but only those ways, to the ones from Finland. The pieces performed by Um and Yang are more in the nature of encores than substantial music – violin showcases, by and large, and salon-style pleasantries in many instances, with no aspiration to anything particularly deep or trenchant. Korngold’s Much Ado about Nothing excerpts – arranged by the composer for violin and piano – are characteristic of his forthright, pleasantly accessible style. The second of them, March of the Watch, has some surprisingly Mahlerian flourishes, while the fourth, Hornpipe, is virtuosic and not at all danceable. Wagner’s Albumblatt (arranged by August Wilhelmj) is much sweeter than is usually the case with Wagner – parts are actually cloying, and Um leans into those sections with particular fervor. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 17 (arranged by Fritz Kreisler) is also an emotional work and also somewhat overdone as performed here. Scènes de la Csárda No. 3 by Jenő Hubay (1858-1937) opens with strong piano flourishes before becoming a violin-driven “Gypsy fiddling” piece that swells and swirls and eventually becomes as impassioned as many of the better-known Brahms dances. Dohnányi’s Gypsy Andante continues this string of Hungarian-inflected works in a piece that balances violin and piano more closely than does most of the music here. La Romanesca by Joseph Achron (1886-1943) is one of those dark-hued works that try to turn expressiveness into emotional depth, but it is more gestural than deeply sincere. Eli Zion by Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930) – which was arranged by Achron – has an emphatic piano opening that leads to sorrowful Hebrew melodies passed between the instruments. Next is another work by Achron himself, Hebrew Dance, Op. 35, No. 1 – the first of his two-piece Op. 35 set, and a work that starts in proclamatory fashion and requires considerable expressiveness in the violin’s highest register, along with gentler and brighter material as the music plunges headlong toward its conclusion. Bloch’s Avodah – a word meaning “work, worship and service” in Hebrew – conveys a greater emotional range, and more intensity, than the pieces by Achron and Zeitlin. The disc ends on a decidedly upbeat note (pun intended) with Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, a neatly titled piece that at eight-and-a-half minutes is the longest work on the CD. This music is all gemütlichkeit, friendly and genial, never delving deeply into emotions but affording the violinist plenty of opportunities to demonstrate technical adeptness – often in three-quarter time. The piano has a decidedly secondary role here, as in most of the works on the disc, but Yang proves a willing and devoted accompanist, and Um shows her thorough mastery of violin technique as well as her engagement with the modest musical content of the piece. Indeed, the overall thinness of the works on this CD makes it less appealing than Um’s playing, which appears to be the main reason for the disc’s existence. This is a kind of demonstration disc for the violinist (more so than for the pianist) – and while it certainly indicates considerable technical skill, there is nothing here that is musically or emotionally substantial enough to indicate Um’s ability in more-substantive fare. Violinists may enjoy this release to a greater extent than will audiences seeking meatier material – this is more a series of appetizers or desserts than a satisfactory musical meal.

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