Sibelius: Karelia Suite, Rakastava & Lemminkäinen

Sibelius: Karelia Suite, Rakastava & Lemminkäinen

For many Finns, the music of Jean Sibelius runs deep. His orchestral works in particular embody the spirit of Finland, with its fierce independence, rich folklore, and the seductive bleakness of its lake-pitted landscapes. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has had a long and distinguished relationship with Sibelius—between 1892 and 1923, the orchestra, conducted by the composer himself, gave the first performances of almost all of his orchestral works. So this is an ensemble with Sibelius running through its veins. And in this recording of three early works, Karelia Suite, Rakastava, and Lemminkäinen, the players are led by another fine Finnish talent, a conductor with her own lifelong love of Sibelius. Talking to Apple Music Classical, Susanna Mälkki describes Sibelius’ orchestral sonorities as “like the smell of the soil,” a soundworld that’s organic, human, grounded. “I often discuss this with orchestral musicians in Finland and we all agree that we never get tired of Sibelius’ music,” says Mälkki. “There’s something about the harmonies and the counterpoint which is so interesting. It’s a total universe and we have a very, very strong connection with it.” She regards working with the Helsinki Philharmonic as “an honor and a joy; you can get right into the interpretation because there’s no need to explain what’s going on.” Orchestras who are unfamiliar with Sibelius’ unique orchestration find they have to adjust to its idiosyncratic demands, she explains. “But with this orchestra,” she says, “it’s really wonderful to be able to dive straight into the possibilities.” Here, Susanna Mälkki offers her personal insights into the music on this wonderful album. Karelia Suite Premiered in its current form in 1900, Karelia Suite was first composed in 1893 as a series of eight tableaux and overture to depict events in the history of the Karelia region, a large block of land dividing Russia from Finland. “The horn calls at the beginning of the ‘Intermezzo’ are very atmospheric,” says Mälkki. “For me, the patriotism is very, very present here.” The central “Ballade,” she continues, “has this archaic feeling in it—it’s a wonderful contrast with the outer movements.” The final “Alla marcia” is surprisingly upbeat for Sibelius—a movement of unfiltered joy. “It was written to be heard in the context of flags,” says Mälkki, “so it’s quite ceremonial. It definitely has a patriotic feel to it—it’s a lot of fun.” Rakastava “For me,” says Mälkki, “this piece has an incredible tenderness. It’s a love story—a very, very unhappy one. I think, in a way, it’s so moving because it tells us a story of how fragile love is and how easy it is to lose it.” Rakastava was originally scored, in 1894, for tenor and male voice choir, setting words from Karelian folk poetry. “I first heard the piece in the version for men’s voices because my father sang in a male choir. So I was familiar with it from a very young age.” Lemminkäinen Like the Karelia Suite and Rakastava, Lemminkäinen is also based on Finnish folklore, loosely based on a 19th-century collection of Finnish poetry, the Kalevala. In effect four separate tone poems, Lemminkäinen tells the story of the Finnish equivalent of a Don Juan-type character, his adventures taking him to an island of maidens, on to the land of death, and finally home, after a series of battles. “The opening tone poem, ‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island,’ is absolutely breathtaking—it’s really interesting how stylistically diverse it is,” says Mälkki. “It’s incredibly rich, and then it kind of just evaporates. Lemminkäinen visits places, charms people, and then he leaves. And that’s kind of what happens here. It ends with a zoom out.” “The Swan of Tuonela,” which is often performed alone in concerts, features one of Sibelius’ most breathtaking moments: a solo for cor anglais that represents the mythical swan. “It’s possibly one of the most touching pieces in the repertoire,” says Mälkki. “I think it’s absolutely timeless.” The third part, “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela,” suggests Mälkki, is astonishing in its originality. “It’s so modern, so raw, and very powerful,” she reveals. “And the contrast between the big fortissimos in the brass and then this little lullaby section in the middle is just so magically beautiful.” Finally, “Lemminkäinen’s Return” sees the hero, at the end of his adventures, arriving back in his native land. “Lemminkäinen doesn’t need to prove anything anymore. He knows that he’s the winner, in a sense. And the music has this fantastic groove. It almost has some kind of pop music quality of it. It’s really catchy and bouncy, and I just love it.”

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