Throughout his career, Jean Sibelius wrote pieces for choir which evince a consistently high standard as well as their creator’s characteristic mode of expression. In spite of this, few of them have entered the international repertoire, largely because of the challenges of the Swedish and Finnish texts to which they are set.
Among the best-known ones are Rakastava (The Lover) and the Six Songs, Op.18, a collection which includes Venematka (The Boat Journey) and the piece which has provided the title of the present disc: Saarella palaa – Fire on the Island. Like so many of Sibelius’ compositions (whether instrumental or vocal), they take their inspiration from the two great national texts of Finland – the Kalevala and Kanteletar collections. The Op.18 songs were originally conceived for male choir, but Sibelius soon made versions for mixed choir of four of them.
These are the versions performed here, by Dominante – one of Finland’s foremost mixed choirs – conducted by Seppo Murto, the choir’s artistic director for more than three decades. With pieces written or arranged between 1887 and 1948, the programme spans the entire active career of the composer, and also includes rarities. Among the more unexpected ones, especially for those who only know the composer from his symphonies, are the two arrangements of what Sibelius himself described as ‘Neapolitan folk songs’: Trippole Trappole and Oje Carulì (Oh Caroline), a light-hearted serenade in which Dominante is joined by the legendary Jorma Hynninen. Hynninen appears elsewhere in the programme, too, along with the mezzo-soprano Monica Groop and with Folke Gräsbeck and Harri Viitanen on piano and organ respectively.
But the great finale of the disc is performed by the choir alone: the hymn section from Finlandia, probably Sibelius’ most famous composition. Reluctant to make a choral arrangement of this orchestral work, the composer finally yielded in his old age: ‘if the world wants to sing, one cannot do anything about it’.
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