Too Much Tchaikovsky

Winds From the North

Oh Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775–1838), where have you been all my life? I was a clarinet major for three semesters. I avidly collected recordings: Reginald Kell, Harold Wright, Richard Stoltzman, Sabine Meyer, more recently Michael Collins, Martin Fröst, Lorenzo Coppola. Yet somehow not once did I encounter Crusell. My Spelman colleague Joe Jennings, the Dean of Atlanta Jazz Musicians, played very fine classical clarinet, and he told me about Crusell. I must have dismissed that as typical clarinetist one-upmanship; I must have figured the man (Bernhard, not Joe) was a Weber wannabe.

But when Michael Collins’ new Chandos recording of the three Crusell clarinet concertos and Introduction et air suédois op. 12 came out (CHSA 5187; SACD or download), I thought, well, why not? I knew that Collins plays Brahms and Mozart really well; it turns out he plays Crusell like an angel. A frisky, exuberant angel. Listen:

Crusell may not have been the Beethoven of the Clarinet, but he knew exactly how to work it so that sheer joy came out the other end. In our first clip, you heard a flippant little rondo theme that takes advantage of the instrument’s essential character and capabilities, which include very wide pitch and dynamic ranges. Here and elsewhere, Crusell shapes scale passages so they “accelerate”: especially in ascending passaggi, he often begins with 4-to-a-beat, slips into 5-to-a-beat, then 6-to-a-beat, popping off an unexpectedly high note at the end.

The slow movements are also lovely:

What the heck. Let’s hear one more clip:

Crusell was Finnish. Who knew? Everyone in Clarinet Universe, apparently. I guess this is the sort of reward awaiting those of us blessed with short attention spans: in our declining years, we will still be making delightful discoveries.

This column focuses on “Winds from the North,” and more Nordic wind music is coming up. But first, a word from Jean Sibelius, founding spirit of modern Finnish music, whose creative breath still animates so much sound made north of the Baltic. In our previous column, Reijo Kiilunen of Ondine Records mentioned an award-winning recent release, and that recording makes a good introduction, or refresher course, or advanced seminar in Sibelius. Sibelius: Tapiola/En Saga/Eight Songs (ODE 1289-5) includes the master’s last orchestral tone poem, Tapiola (1926) and his first, En Saga (1892; rev. 1902). That work’s title evokes tales of ancestral gods and heroes, a reference reflecting the composer’s ardent embrace of Finnish nationalism and borne out by the primordial character of its themes. En Saga is structured in a rugged sonata form, its final section ending not in noisy triumph but in a measured, lyrical retreat from the battle scenes depicted earlier. Structurally, what started out as a full-throated thematic recapitulation is cut off by a cymbal crash, and the themes, like the old myths themselves, dissolve into scraps of memory:

Christoffer Sundqvist was the clarinetist heard toward the end; Hannu Lintu conducted the Finnish Radio SO in a performance that wisely combines drama and textural clarity.

Of Tapiola less need be said, because it can’t be said: neither the musical structure nor its literary roots bend toward the plainspoken. At his publisher’s request, Sibelius wrote a few lines of poetry to describe the music, especially to those who had never experienced what Mr. Kiilunen calls the “magic of the Finnish forest”:

In Pohjola stand the thick, dark forests,
Ancient, mysterious, dreaming savage dreams;
The Forest God’s eerie dwellings are there
and half-glimpsed spirits, and the voices of twilight.

No gods or heroes actually appear. No humans, either. The music develops organically out of a few simple, related motives. Sibelius said that “Tapiola is written in strict sonata form,” but because it’s essentially monothematic, you may experience it as a set of variations, metamorphic, perhaps, in the manner of developing variation. In any case the music refuses to disclose whatever Sibelius discovered in the woods. As music, however—as an emotionally communicative process—Tapiola is far less inscrutable, and thus well worth hearing. There’s no point in excerpting it:

 

The album rounds off with a tasting menu of Sibelius songs, eight of the more than 100 he wrote, newly orchestrated in 2015 by Aulis Sallinen for Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Especially if you have not encountered Sibelius as a song composer, you will find these of interest. Sallinen’s orchestrations are often more daring and colorful than those of his predecessors. (A long tradition of Sibelius settings by other musicians exists in Finland.) Listen to the poignant horn lines—followed by other distinctive timbres—in “Under strandens granar,” below. (For complete Swedish and English texts, click here and then select the “English” box to the right of the song title. On the webpage you can also hear an excerpt of the song sung to its original piano accompaniment.)

 

Having heard these eight orchestral songs, you may hanker for more; attractive options abound. Over the years I’ve enjoyed soprano Soile Isokoski’s Luonnotar/Orchestral Songs with Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki PO (ODE 1080-5; SACD and download). With Isokoski, you’ll go from tasting menu to seven-course banquet: more bleak love ballads; more wild, mysterious, unforgiving nature scenes; more memento mori.  Enjoy! (Seriously, Isokoski’s lustrous operatic presentations of this material offer a strong contrast to von Otter’s intimacy, and you may prefer that.)

I also recommend In the Stream of Life: Songs by Sibelius from bass-baritone Gerald Finley and the Bergen PO, Gardner conducting (Chandos CHSA 5178). The chief attractions here are seven songs newly orchestrated by Einojuhani Rautavaara. He chose well: you will hear some of Sibelius’s best music here, utilizing a wider range of human feeling—and musical style, everything from near-Bartók to proto-Britten—than you might have associated with this composer. Part of it is Finley’s uncanny ability to characterize. I don’t mean merely his way of capturing the specific psychology of a song, its moment. More than that, he seems to become a character who embodies that moment. As with his portrayals (no other word will do) of Shostakovich, Schubert, or Britten, he is able to communicate the core of a text as if he were the person caught up in it.

Rautavaara provided colorful, occasionally radical new symphonic clothing for these songs. And Edward Gardner is utterly supportive, both in the song accompaniments and in the album’s substantial makeweights, the tone poems Pohjola’s Daughter and The Oceanides. From the complete playlist below, try “Demanten på marssnön” or “Näcken” or “I natten.” (Complete texts here.)

 

Beautifully recorded, of course. Not just Finley, but also von Otter and Isokoski; what a feast!

Speaking of “beautifully recorded,” that’s become the default description for anything emanating from Morten Lindberg’s 2L. With Woven Brass (2L 143-SABD; or try this), for example, the recorded sound is . . . perfect.

So let’s talk about the performers: they’re perfect too. I mean the Oslo Philharmonic Brass, five members of the Oslo PO including trumpeter Jonas Haltia, who got the ball rolling back in 2003 when he played at Bjørn Morten Christophersen’s brother’s wedding. Christophersen wrote a surprise piece for the ceremony, and Haltia liked it so much he recorded it as Sentimental Pebbles. It forms the peaceful midpoint of the new album, which leads off with this composer’s The Wind Blows Where It Desires (for three trumpets) and ends with Woven Brass Quintet. Although it’s all brass-music-and-nothing-but, Christophersen introduces maximum variety in the textures and effects; also, nothing goes on too long. Of particular interest is a group of shorter compositions written over a fifteen-year period using the same thematic materials. It’s good! For these performers—all of them orchestra professionals, whose daily task it is to play faultlessly and precisely in an ensemble—it’s more than good. It’s . . . perfect.

The whole album can be streamed on YouTube, but as with other YouTube dubs, you won’t really hear it that way. You’ll have to get the Blu-ray/SACD combo or else the best possible download available. Nevertheless, check some tracks out below. Chaconne, tr. 13, is a solo-trumpet extravaganza. Ohrwurmer Fantasie (“Earworm Fantasy”) is also catchy. (You’ll have to click on the embedded album title below to get to YouTube, where the “Show More” option will let you see timing cues for the whole collection.)

 

Still with us? Next time, a conversation with Bert van der Wolf.