The fame of Jean Sibelius rests on his orchestral works, mainly his seven symphonies and the Violin Concerto. He also wrote several symphonic poems, the most important of which are his first major work Kullervo, Op. 7, symphonic poem for soprano, baritone, male voice choir and orchestra which is enjoying a new wave of popularity today; the romantic En Saga, Op. 9, the earthy Karelia Suite, Op. 11, the Lemmink�inen Suite, Op. 22, based on the Kalevala myths, Finlandia, Op. 26, which became the symbol of Finland's struggle for independence and then of Finland as a nation, and the monumental Tapiola, Op. 112, which was his last major work. The significance of Sibelius for the music not only of Finland but the whole of Europe was encapsulated by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who wrote in a letter to Sibelius: 'You have lit a candle that will never go out.'
With Kullervo, Sibelius single-handedly created what was perceived as a 'Finnish tone world', and En Saga confirmed his position as the leading figure in Finnish music. After the success of Kullervo, Sibelius returned to the world of the Kalevala. He began to plan an opera, The Building of the Boat, based on the epic. The project ground to a halt, however, because of difficulties with the libretto, and Sibelius abandoned it. Instead, he began to plan a new symphonic poem featuring another character from the Kalevala, Lemmink�inen. In 1893, Sibelius had written what was to have been the overture of the opera. This finally became the third movement of the Lemmink�inen Suite, with the title The Swan of Tuonela, one of his most popular works, along with Valse triste and, of course, Finlandia.
Before starting work on the Lemmink�inen Suite, Sibelius received a commission. Dramatic tableaux were a popular form of entertainment around the turn of the century. The students of Viborg University were planning to stage a series of tableaux depicting the history of Karelia, to raise funds for popular education in eastern Finland. Karelianism was an important movement at that time. Sibelius was asked to write the music for the tableaux. He was an excellent choice, since he had travelled extensively in Karelia only a year earlier. He eventually produced a suite with seven numbers, two of which were songs. The music was optimistic, easily approachable and even rustic, and it was extremely well received. Later, Sibelius pruned the suite on several occasions, eventually leaving three movements: Intermezzo, Ballade and Alla marcia. The first movement, Intermezzo, originally accompanied a tableau in which Karelian woodsmen are on their way to pay taxes to a Lithuanian prince. The second movement Ballade, features the deposed king Charles Knutsson, who has retreated to Viipuri Castle. Here he listens to a ballad. The orchestral version has a solo for English horn (originally the movement was sung). Alla marcia, a call to arms, is the most popular of the three movements. The tableau it accompanied depicts a battle around K�kisalmi Castle. The Karelia Suite was enthusiastically received, and it has since been performed at a wide range of folk events.
For Sibelius, 1894 and 1895 marked a quiet period during which he worked on the Lemmink�inen Suite. When it was first performed, in 1896, it was panned by music critic Karl Flodin. After the second performance, Flodin wrote a scathing review, and Sibelius reacted by banning two of the movements from public performance, only allowing The Swan of Tuonela and Lemmink�inen's Return to be published. Even these two he revised. The suite was forgotten for a long time and it was not performed in its entirety until the Kalevala centenary in 1935. Sibelius later exchanged the places of the second and third movements, making The Swan of Tuonela the second movement. The original order is observed in this recording.
Lemmink�inen and the Maidens of Saari, the title movement, as it were, is melodic and memorable. Sibelius wrote to his publisher to explain its background: 'Lemmink�inen, the Don Juan of Finnish mythology, abandons his young wife and goes to Saari, where he sports with the young maidens; the men chase him off.' Lemmink�inen in Tuonela is a sombre, anguished depiction of the journey of Lemmink�inen to the black river of Tuonela (land of the dead), where he is killed. Life triumphs, however, since Lemmink�inen's mother brings her son back to life. This event is aptly set in a touching and subdued lullaby. The third and most important movement, The Swan of Tuonela, is like a dream vision - enchanting, full of pathos and mysticism. 'The Swan of Tuonela, with its English horn melody and wonderful melancholy harmonies, in the vision of a great poet,' was the verdict in France after a concert performance in 1900. The Swan of Tuonela has been described as Sibelius's first true masterpiece. The final movement of the suite, Lemmink�inen's Return, is heroic music at its best: Lemmink�inen returns home triumphantly to lucid and powerful music that is filled with dramatic tension. The Lemmink�inen Suite was a step further along the road on which Sibelius had embarked with Kullervo and En Saga. In many ways, it paved the way for the symphonies, the first of which Sibelius began to write soon afterwards.
The orchestral 'ouverture', Finlandia, became an important symbol of Finland's struggle for independence, and it has remained an epitome of all things Finnish, both in its original orchestral guise and in the choral version of the hymn section, with words later provided by V.A. Koskenniemi. It was originally written for a set of historical tableaux to be performed at a gala in Helsinki to support Finland's right to free speech under Russia. Sibelius later reworked the piece for the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, after which it gained wider recognition. It became the symbol of Finland's fight for independence and later on, during World War II, a symbol of Finnish nationalism. Finlandia lives in hundreds of various arrangements, and is possibly the best known Finnish music throughout the worid.
Reviews...this is a gripping reading of some of Sibelius's most overtly nationalistic works, with Petri Sakari's freshness and dramatic intuition coming up trumps. - Andrew Clarke, The Independent, August 1999