Sibelius: Luonnotar, Op. 70; Songs, Op. 13

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COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Ondine ODE
ALBUM TITLE: Sibelius
WORKS: Luonnotar, Op. 70; Songs, Op. 13
PERFORMER: Soile Isokoski (soprano); Helsinki PO/Leif Segerstam
CATALOGUE NO: 1080-5 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Hard on the heels of Osmo Vänskä’s excellent Spirit of Nature collection, this, devoted entirely to the orchestral songs for female voice, presents something even more special. Soile Isokoski’s voice has matured into a powerful instrument without losing its distinctively plangent expressiveness and intense way with words – both in Finnish and Sibelius’s favoured poetic language Swedish. Segerstam, often a quirky Sibelian, here provides spacious yet vividly dramatic support, with superb orchestral playing. And the recording, excellent in CD stereo, is utterly stunning in multichannel SACD: airy, large-scale, immediate and detailed with diamond clarity.

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About half these songs were orchestrated by the composer, the rest by other hands, chiefly and most convincingly his son-in-law, the conductor Jussi Jalas. In the opening song, Kaiutar, Jalas brings out almost Debussyian textures, and darker more Nordic sounds for the folk tale Under Lakeside Firs. Still more effective are Sibelius’s own versions of songs like Höstkväll, Diamonds in March Snow and that miniature masterpiece Since then I’ve asked no further, underlining the emptiness of heartache with almost subliminally tolling percussion, a quality Isokoski evokes with elegiac beauty. In the great quasi-tone poem Luonnotar, though, she delivers the rising ecstasy of the creation myth with appropriately soaring tone and narrative thrill, with Segerstam bringing out the pulsing, sweeping rhythms and sea-washed orchestral hues. Between performance and recording this would be my prime recommendation for Luonnotar, but this whole disc’s a Sibelian essential. Michael Scott Rohan.