by Ryan Ross
Sibelius: Karelia Suite, Op. 11; Rakastava, Op. 14; Lemminkäinen, Op. 22. Susanna Mälkki, conductor; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. BIS-2638
Karelia Suite and Lemminkäinen Legends (or “Suite,” as it’s often called). The field isn’t nearly Beethoven Fifth-level crowded, but the bar is not exactly low either. In the music here that plays to her strengths, Mälkki and the HPO give wonderful performances. But there are parts that do not always align with her predisposition, and these (for my taste) lead to middling ventures.
Karelia Suite is a good case in point. All of the ingredients would appear to be here for a splendid interpretation. And yet, I’m missing a little extra something that might be called “gusto” or “absolute conviction.” In the first movement (and beyond) we witness Mälkki’s skillfully balanced voices and colors. But perhaps the busy timpani are a bit too soft, the strings too crystalline. The tempo in the Ballade is a touch on the deliberate side, which is fine. But here again the punctuating element is dimmed, this time in the pizzicato second violin chords accompanying the dream-like secondary theme’s undulating cello line. To my ears, the finale simply sounds too graceful for an “Alla marcia,” particularly with the knowledge that this music was originally conceived to accompany a tableaux depicting military conquest. Overall, the gestures are too delicate and rounded and the mood overly restrained. I would suggest the wonderful performance by Okko Kamu and the Helsinki Radio Symphony Orchestra (found on Deutsche Grammophon 427 204-2) as an illustrative point of comparison. While lacking Mälkki and the HPO’s finesse, its spirit is unimpeachable.
With Lemminkӓinen’s Return the results are better, if not top-tier. The tempo is suitably brisk and the playing very well controlled. But once again I’m missing just a touch of legendary magic that characterizes the best options. (I simply do not understand why so many performances of this piece insist upon ppp, instead of p, statements in important upper woodwind figures, such as those at Rehearsal F. These need to be heard!) On balance, then, this performance of the Lemminkӓinen Legends is a decent option, weighing two distinguished entries against lackluster and average ones. My top choices for this set of pieces are still Leif Segerstam and the HPO (Ondine ODE852-2), and Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (BIS CD-294). These may cede some ground to Mälkki and the HPO in the inner movements, but they are more aesthetically consistent.
I am happy to recommend the Rakastava performance without reservation. Mälkki finds a congenial match for her talents in this tender, plaintive work. It will probably never be among Sibelius’s most loved compositions, but it deserves exposure. We can only hope that this interpretation sparks further interest. Any subsequent recordings will have to be good indeed to merit preference over this one.
While I cannot give every effort here full-throated recommendation, I do heartily suggest buying this recording. Susanna Mälkki may not always be my ideal match for what she conducts, but she comes across as a highly intelligent musician who brings an impressive toolkit to her various tasks. She seems more at home in the “modernist” repertoire, but the occasions here when her conducting astounds make me interested in what she has to offer elsewhere. This is a release that enriches the catalogue, whatever else might be said.