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Gerald Finley, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA5178 (SACD)
Shortly before he died, Jean Sibelius spotted the talent inherent in the music of a bright young Finnish composer by the name of Einojuhani Rautavarra, even helping him pursue his studies in the United States. Nearly 60 years later, Rautavarra repaid some of that debt orchestrating a set of seven Sibelius songs in a cycle he called In the Stream of Life.
The midwife to this act was Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley. Rautavarra had written his Rubáiyát for the singer who had become first a colleague and then a friend, so the multilingually ambitious Finley naturally turned to Rautavaara when looking for some Sibelius songs to sing with orchestra. The results are here on this superb Chandos disc, poignantly recorded last year the very week of Rautavaara’s funeral, and accompanied by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under a magnificent Edward Gardner.
A marriage of true minds, the choice of songs was clearly personal to Rautavarra, but the subjects are also pure Sibelius exhibiting the elder Finn’s fascination with nature and folklore and his yearning for the empty landscape. The orchestrations are quite magical and delicate, full of gestures that are typical Rautavarra – diatonic string chords, sinuous woodwind and tinkling metallic percussion – yet they are also truly Sibelian in their warmth and natural sense of balance.
Finley too is completely inside these texts – whether German or Swedish (Sibelius rarely set his native tongue) – and his warm, resonant voice performs miracles, whether throwing a fine-spun lyrical line over Richard Dehmel’s The Quiet Town, or capturing the humour and irony in a tale like Josephson’s The River and the Snail. Perhaps the most remarkable fusion is to be heard in Näcken, an obliquely erotic song about a Water Spirit. Finley is the imaginative glue connecting Rautavaara’s opening sally on viola and harp, followed by sensual phrases snaking up from lower strings, with the weary tread of the final string chords which could be no-one but Sibelius.
The rest of the disc is made up of other Sibelius songs, a few orchestrated by the composer himself like the gripping, mythical love-and-jealousy ballad The Rapids-Rider’s Bride, where Finley, singing here in Finnish, yields nothing to the mastery of the resonant, native-speaking Jorma Hynninen on BIS. The graceful Hertig Magnus – another yarn that ends in a watery grave – is a delicate delight, the Hymn to Thaïs, the Unforgettable is excitingly virile.
Gardner too deserves full credit. He’s an inspired Sibelian whose contemporary music credentials find him fully at home in the Rautavaara cycle. Elsewhere he delivers impressively natural accounts of Pohjola’s Daughter and The Oceanides, teasing an extreme clarity from this music and picked up brilliantly by the meticulous Chandos engineers. If this doesn’t win awards, I’ll eat my hat.