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Sibelius' fame seems to rest nowadays on his work as a composer of symphonies, but how important a song writer was he?
He was extremely important to the song repertoire as song was to him. His output (over 100 songs!) traverses both the Scandinavian poetic influence of his time as well as the romantic German. Although his first language was Swedish, his dedication to Finnish national culture spawned many works in that un-mined language, and became important in Finland finding its cultural identity during Sibelius' lifetime. The song repertoire is greatly enhanced by his extensive work, both with piano and orchestra. They are a staple in Scandinavian recitals.
Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley
Is it just the language barrier that means his songs are less often heard?
Sibelius wrote songs in different languages, including German (Op. 50) and English (Hymn to Thaïs), so those songs are definitely accessible! The Nordic languages are a small hindrance to singer and audience, but there is great richness in the folklore and his response to nature, which he explores, and it’s very much worth the effort to find the language character in order to perform them. The style tends to a Nordic coolness and irony, but the passion of På Veranden (On the balcony) and Svarta Rosor (Black Roses) always deliver great climaxes and darkness. There is no real excuse for them not to be more present in recital programmes. To be fair, the majority of his later output was originally written for soprano, but in his early years, his compositions were for bass-baritone.
Most of the songs are in Swedish, but some are in Finnish. How tricky are those languages for a native English speaker and how do you go about tackling it as a singer?
There is a great debate among the Finns and Swedes as to how the language should be sung (Finnish Swedish...), and how the modern Swedish has many new variations when reading the poetry Sibelius set. I always prepare with a native speaker, who is either a singer or musician, and also get clues from recorded performances in order to understand the smaller nuances and colours of the text. It is really about trying to see where the words can be delivered as honestly as possible within the musical framework and the response that Sibelius had to the words and story. In the sessions, I had a Norwegian listening and a Swedish double bassist in the orchestra. The Finnish was supervised by the oboist! There were a few interesting discussions! In the end, I had to make final choices.
The set of songs recorded here includes several miniature masterpieces. Which would you single out for special praise?
All the pieces on this recording are musical greats, and like children there are too many to laud fairly. The strangeness and bleak vision of På Veranden is revolutionary, and the easy humour and orchestral colour of Elven och Snigeln (The River and the Snail) are signs that the composer is at ease in responding to a variety of texts. Die Stille Stadt (The Quiet Town) is a magical song, and Komm nu, het Död (Come Away, Death) is a refined, tender song, capturing Shakespeare but adding a Nordic depth. My personal favourite is Jag är ett Träd (I Am a Tree), a desolate song of a bare tree.
How did it come about that Einojuhani Rautavaara orchestrated the Seven Songs recorded here for you to sing?
After my initial Sibelius song work in the 1990s, I was introduced to contemporary Finnish musical life because of Kaija Saariaho's opera L'amour de Loin. My in-laws knew Einojuhani through the Finnish choral system and introduced us. After Einojuhani had kindly written a cycle for me called Rubáyiát, I came up with the idea that some of my favourite Sibelius songs lacked proper orchestration for my vocal range. He suggested a sort of cycle and offered Jägargossen, and Die Stille Stadt. When looking to complete the set, he found the resources in his final months to orchestrate Hjaertats Morgon (The Morning of the Heart). His was the title suggestion: In the Stream of Life. I am completely indebted to him for making it happen.
How important a song composer do you consider Rautavaara himself to have been?
Rautavaara was not so well known to me before I came across his song repertoire, particularly the Shakespeare Sonnet 18, Shall I Compare Thee. I realised he understood the voice and had a wonderful idea of melody and a boisterous harmonic language. His output was prodigious, with many volumes of songs. I hope to perform them more, there are many gems. In Scandinavia, his songs are performed very often.
You knew and worked with Rautavaara. What was he like as a collaborator?
My great fortune was to meet Einojuhani in the productive final years of his life. He was immensely gracious and full of twinkle, and he produced Rubáyiát within just a few months of us first meeting. He had known the texts for 50 years! He showed me the 1949 edition he worked from, which had amazing illustrations – that was a special moment. He was surprised and delighted when I found an exact copy, which I used when I was learning the cycle. We had very few exchanges about the music – perhaps a comment or two about tempi – mostly about a few publishing errors, and he was very encouraging in allowing me a piano version as well as the orchestral version he envisaged. Both have been performed, and I hope will be well received into the baritone repertoire. With the songs, I was profoundly moved that his sensitivity to Sibelius' music and his own creative gentleness made the orchestrations a perfect mix of composers.
Do you have other Scandinavian songs in your repertoire, and are there other composers from these countries that you'd recommend to listeners who enjoy this disc?
I have Grieg songs and a few by Rangström in my repertoire. Obviously, I love the music of Kaija Saariaho, and along with Magnus Lindberg and Esa Pekka Salonen, Scandanavian music is alive and thriving.
Gerald Finley's Sibelius disc is Limelight's Recording of the Month for April 2017