Recording of the Week Gerald Finley sings Sibelius songs
One of my long-overdue musical discoveries of this winter has been the song output of Jean Sibelius: I started exploring these often melancholy, often macabre works thanks to the passionate advocacy of the American mezzo Jamie Barton, who described them as 'made of life and guts' in a Presto interview a little while ago. It was a real delight, then, to find that Chandos's first batch of releases for the New Year includes a disc of super-sized Sibelius songs from Gerald Finley, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, in orchestrations by the composer himself and others; perhaps the most notable of these is his protege Einojuhani Rautavaara, who died this July, just weeks before his final contribution to this disc was recorded.
The album takes its title from a set of seven songs which Rautavaara orchestrated especially for Finley, and which were premiered by him and the Bergen Philharmonic back in 2014; Finley was something of a muse for the composer, who also wrote him the opulent song-cycle Rubáiyát (setting verses by Omar Khayyám) which received its first performance at the Wigmore Hall later that same year. Though the songs are taken from various opus numbers rather than having been originally conceived as a group by Sibelius, they make a wonderfully coherent cycle here: the pervasive mood is one of brooding isolation against a harsh wintry backdrop, with the occasion dash of folkloric uncanniness to spice things up.
Rautavaara's orchestrations are so convincingly Sibelian that on first hearing I completely forgot I wasn't listening to the The Real Thing: the sound-world of the tone-poems in particular (two of which receive evocative performances on this disc) is rarely far away, for instance in the eerie, distant string-writing representing a ghost-town at the opening of the cycle and the spooky viola solo in 'Näcken' (depicting an other-worldly boy-fiddler), both of which seem to pay homage to En Saga. Elsewhere, there are distinct whiffs of Finlandia (especially when Rautavaara employs chorale-like brass for the big climaxes), whilst some of the writing for low woodwind has echoes of The Swan of Tuonela.
Finley is in magnificent voice throughout: though it's relatively uncommon to find non-Finnish singers tackling this repertoire, he seems completely at home with both the sound-world and the texts, most of which are actually in Swedish rather than Finnish. Though the top of the voice (often showcased to thrilling effect at the climaxes of the more dramatic songs) is as firm and incisive as ever, Finley's bass-baritone has become deeper and steelier over the past few years as he's taken on heavier operatic assignments such as Hans Sachs and Amfortas, and the dark vowel-sounds of the language seem to tap into the full spectrum of autumnal vocal colours at his disposal.
A marvellously atmospheric disc for the long dark January nights, then - though I suspect I'll still be playing it well into spring and beyond!
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner
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