RECORDS / Hinterland of the soul: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on Sibelius's Lemminkainen and Milhaud

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The Independent Culture
SIBELIUS: Lemminkainen

Legends. En Saga

Los Angeles Philhar

monic / Esa-Pekka Salonen

(Sony SK 48067)

HE WAS born in Helsinki and studied at the Sibelius Academy: Salonen has this music in his central nervous system, and it shows. The mysterious En Saga impressively reaffirms his grasp of the sonic elements. Frosty violin arpeggios open the door on this strange hinterland, a searching theme in the lower strings is countered by stark, plangent ostinati from the woodwinds like the ticking of a universal clock, craggy, windswept climaxes rear up on awesome bass drum groundswells.

This is quite a performance, a real fire and ice affair, vivid and yet eternally elusive - like the enigmatic first clarinet, unforgettable in the long, etiolated solo of the closing pages, receding beyond our grasp with the secrets of the piece intact. There are fewer secrets but an abundance of fantastic imagery to be found among the adventures of Lemminkainen, the legendary Finnish Don Juan - four tone poems in search of a symphony. Again Salonen and his orchestra are not afraid to outreach themselves, to explore the extremities. Lots of colour, energy, and atmosphere here: Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari moves almost shockingly from flirtatious fancy to orgiastic lust, Lemminkainen in Tuonela fully exploits the tensile tremolandi of Sibelius's restless spirit, while after a poignantly wholehearted Swan of Tuonela it is like going from black and white into colour for Lemminkainen's Return.

Sony has engineered the proceedings more for immediacy and clarity than naturalism, homing in on the textural anomalies, throwing pithy inner woodwind detail into unusually sharp relief. I was gripped. ES

LIKE Lemminkainen, Salonen has set himself a goal. His point is that the customary way of doing things turns out to be erroneous. Somehow the middle two movements of the Legends have got into the wrong order: The Swan of Tuonela has to be an elegy for the hero, hacked to pieces and hurled into the Finnish River Styx during the Lemminkainen in Tuonela movement. How can anyone justify putting The Swan first? This re-ordering follows the pattern of the first performance - a simple restoration job, surely.

From both the historical and the narrative angles the issues appear to be rather more complicated. But more to the point, even if Salonen is right, his performance does not convince me. It is urgent, sharply colourful, and the opening legend, Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari, hots up nicely towards its climax - well, the subject is supposed to be sex. To go straight from this to the equally highly charged Lemminkainen in Tuonela is too much of a strain. In the familiar arrangement, The Swan makes a wonderful reflective interlude, at the same time generating a suitably black, melancholy atmosphere for the underworld adventures that follow.

In the culminating Lemminkainen's Return I did not feel that the cycle had completed itself; merely that Salonen was, as before, expertly screwing up tension for an explosive final climax. And that for me was the impression pretty much throughout his En Saga - exciting certainly, atmospheric maybe, but in the end oddly unsatisfying. Salonen makes an impressive show (and the recording makes sure we miss nothing), but the dark heart of this music eludes him. SJ

MILHAUD: Symphonies 1 and 2. Suite Provencale

Orchestre du Capitole de

Toulouse / Michel Plasson

(DG 435 437-2)

HERE is another odd experience. Very little in either of the two symphonies is not attractive or arresting in itself, but the flow of ideas is just a little too easy, the development too discursive. At times it is almost like listening to an after-dinner anecdote that has forgotten its punchline but goes on being enchanting nevertheless. Symphonies? To these (no doubt Viennese-biased) ears there is more symphonic thinking in Milhaud's 'jazz ballet' La Creation du monde.

No, for me the most roundly enjoyable thing on this disc is the Suite Provencale, a collection of eight piquant, folk-flavoured miniatures which despite its slighter pretensions seems to add up to more than either of the two symphonies. The Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse may not have the veneer of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Los Angeles Philharmonic, but there is vitality and affection in the playing, in the symphonies at least - perhaps the Suite could have done with another session at charm school, though. SJ

PERCY GRAINGER had a word for it: 'rambling'. He would, I think, have appreciated Milhaud's informal, freewheeling approach to the symphony. In both cases here the stylistic mix is predictably eccentric with dewy pastorales of carolling woodwinds (eminently Baroque in the shape and character of the embellishments) giving way to racy syncopated scherzos, operatic dirge-like slow movements, and unbuttoned hat-in-the-air finales. The melodic 'stream of consciousness', the busy, fertile textures are invariably diverting - no question that Milhaud could dress and elaborate and impel his material with flair.

But as the Second Symphony pealed triumphantly to its close, I felt no more a sense of satisfaction, of symphonic culmination, than I did at the close of the First. Fleeting pleasures, then, but no lasting impressions. For now I shall go away humming the unspoiled rustic charms of his Suite Provencale. At least there you get what you pay for. ES

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