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Briefly Noted: Vänskä/Lahti Sibelius Continues

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Sibelius, Lemminkäinen Suite / The Wood Nymph, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, O. Vänskä

(released on July 8, 2014)
BIS-1745 | 69'37"
Osmo Vänskä recorded the rarely heard Lemminkäinen Suite with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 1999, a version that featured both the original and revised versions of its four movements. This disc, set for release next week, includes remastered versions of three tracks (The Wood Nymph and, from the Lemminkäinen Suite, The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen's Return) from their earlier Sound of Sibelius disc. The other two movements of the suite, actually recorded in 2006 and 2007 when Vänskä was still music director in Lahti, are of interest because they incorporate revisions that Sibelius made to them in 1939, changes that were never published. The Vänskä/Lahti cycle may not be an Ionarts choice for the symphonies, but this sort of scholarly distinctiveness -- Sibelius biographer Andrew Barnett contributed the informative booklet essay -- makes it an easy recommendation.

Both of these works give a glimpse of Sibelius as opera composer manqué, since they incorporate music created for two operas that never came to be, after he had some time spent communing with the shade of Wagner in Munich and Bayreuth. The gloomy movement called The Swan of Tuonela is a loving tribute to the opening of the final act of Tristan, with its somber minor chords in divisi strings con sordini (even the juxtaposition of G minor and B-flat minor recalls Wagner's harmony for that scene) and English horn solo (instead of Wagner's Holztrompete for the Shepherd's pipe). The opening motto of the suite, in the introduction to the first movement, is given to the four horns, hovering on an interlocking minor-minor seventh chord (C-Eflat-F-Aflat), with the dissonance glowing at the center of the sonority. The subsequent music of Lemminkäinen's adventures, drawn from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, is set over a drone in the strings, a B-flat dominant seventh chord over E-flat pedal. The massive crescendo that drives the piece, paced beautifully by Vänskä, is fueled in no small part by long pedal notes, as well as by swirling chromatic runs.

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