SIBELIUS: Legends of Lemminkainen, Op. 22 – USSR Radio Symphony, Tauno Hannikainen – Forgotten Records – FR 2081 (47:07) [www.forgottenrecords.com] ****:
Conductor Tauno Hannikainen (1896-1968) extends the Sibelius tradition of his noted predecessors Robert Kajanus and Georg Schneevoigt in his intensely linear approach to the 1895 cycle of symphonic poems derived from the Finnsh Kalevala, which follows the picaresque career of Lemminkainen, a cross between Don Juan and Siegfried in his often erotic exploits. The striking colors invoked in Sibelius’ handling of the materials of Scandinavian mythology literally assault our senses in these renditions from Russia in 1958, on a par with readings from Eugene Ormandy and Sixten Ehrling. The internal logic of Sibelius’ presentation of kindred motifs in the four poems creates a satisfying whole in a genre that could easily have devolved into discrete rhapsodies.
The opening tone-poem, Lemminkainen and the Maidens, begins with annunciatory horn motives (E-flat Major) in wide spacing, as the scene unfolds with Lemminkainen’s consorting with “a thousand brides” in the absence of their men. Pageantry and amorous passion intertwine in a loose sonata form, punctuated by bursts of orchestral color and dynamic shifts in chromatic harmonies borrowed, it would appear, from Wagner’s Tristan and Tannhauser. The last pages invoke the hero’s escape from returned, betrayed spouses in a calm setting, a twilight that promises more adventures.
The second and most famous episode, The Swan of Tuonela, recounts Lemminkainen’s journey to the Underworld to slay the bird of death, whose mournful song, as she floats above a set of divided strings, the English horn intones with stately calm. The harp sheds light on the otherwise black waters, a moment of bright C Major. Darkness falls once more, marked by the timpani, and the music hovers with the English horn in a soft miasma undergirded by col legno strings.
Sibelius’ capacity for innovative coloration shines in Lemminkainen in Tuonela, the most chromatically daring of the quartet of tone pictures. Lemminkainen has descended into Tuonela, the Land of Death, to kill the Swan, but his own nemesis, the blind cowherd, slays him, and Lemminkainen’s mother must resurrect his recovered, shattered corpse from the river. Set in an eerie F# Minor, the music proceeds as a series of staggered tensions, some of which echo medieval plainchant. These audacious harmonies will figure much later in the woodwinds and horns, aided by a fierce cymbal crash, alerts us to the temporary catastrophe. More borrowed harmonies from Wagner, bits of the Ring and Parsifal, invoke a sense of tragedy. A plaintive folk song arises, almost a berceuse, only to yield to the grim, ominous urgency of the eternal struggle of life and death. At the finale, a solo cello emerges with the beginnings of the Swan’s fateful song, reminding us that, in the original order, this episode preceded The Swan of Tuonela.
Lemminkainen’s Return proceeds as a rondo-finale instigated by the bassoon in descending intervals, a Homeward Journey not so distant from Siegfried’s trek by way of the Rhine. Sibelius utilizes ostinato, repeated motifs to provide the sense of unity, while the music gains epic momentum. A four-note pattern we have heard prior makes itself heard again, perhaps akin to the Beethoven “fate” motif. The festive impulses from conductor Hannikainen assume a whirling atmosphere, spinning in the manner of Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, in their respective orgiastic scenes from Childe Harolde and Manfred. Brass and high woodwinds collaborate to invoke a frenzy that has ineluctably made its way to the home key of E-flat, no less Sibelius’ key of epic resolution, as it has been Beethoven’s.