I’m just saying – no need for any alarm though – but I started with Spring Song (track 5) and was troubled by the pitch – slightly flat? – something intensified by a quick check through the rest of the disc, which offered no such qualms. However, confronting my doubts, I am now hopeful of being totally wrong. What is not questionable is that Spring Song is a rapturous hymn to Nature (if, it seems, concerning “The Sadness of Spring”), realised gloriously here, intensifying to the season’s verdant arrival, bells pealing. It makes a nice foil to the music Sibelius wrote for Procopé’s play Belshazzar’s Feast, a score of exotic harmonies and colouring that paints pictures without the need for stage action. From ‘Oriental Procession’ to ‘Khadra’s Dance’, this is music that enchants, the two middle movements most off all, ‘Solitude’ and ‘Nocturne’, respectively fragile and dreamy, all realised here with dedication and sensitivity as well as through distinguished solos, all relevant players credited.
As for the main event, the Lemminkäinen Legends (the latter titular word preferable to the now-usual Suite, which Chandos chooses), I have heard Sakari Oramo conduct this vivid four-part opus at least twice (March 2017, BBCSO, Barbican Centre; and October 2018, a Berliner Philharmoniker webcast) and on both occasions he has opted for a second-placed ‘Swan of Tuonela’. Fair enough, as this seems to represent Sibelius’s ultimate order of music revised three times, finally as late as 1939; yet, to my mind, ‘Swan’ is better placed third, where it is used to be when I was discovering this music (so long ago!), and also having the two longer sections riposted by the shorter ones makes greater sense ... so the surprise, and a gratifying one, is that Oramo has changed his mind, at least for this recording, and (based on the published score) does the order of I, III, II, IV.
It’s a terrific performance, too, in no fear of any previous recorded traversal, including by numerous Scandinavian colleagues and not forgetting Colin Davis, Eugene Ormandy and Horst Stein. Thus, from Oramo, ‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari’ is given a pliable outing, from languishing to impetuous, always scenic, becoming ardent, a story to be told – gripping music-music (and the recorded sound is as sumptuous as it is detailed, whether piccolo skirls, triangle tinkles or bass-drum rolls), enough that it is then inevitable that we arrive at ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’, a windswept desolate place, baleful, eerie, edgy – always dramatic – these performers ignoring any safety requirements the producer’s ‘red light’ might engender.
Now, only now, do we need some respite, even if this Swan’s song, solitarily sounded from black waters, is funereally tinged, however eloquent Alison Teale’s cor anglais solo is, so too those from a trio of string principals. There must be a way out of this, and ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’ signals the escape, an athletic and accumulating account (subtle too) beefed-up by stealthy and sonorous brass-playing, perky woodwinds and nimble strings. I hate to be a cliché-monger, but this is an essential release.