BALTIC RUNES - Music of Tormis, Sibelius, Kreek and Bergman
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Paul Hillier, cond.

DUKAS: The Sorcerer's Apprentice. RAVEL: Mother Goose. KOECHLIN: Les Bandar-log.
Strausbourg Philharmonic Orch/Marc Albrecht, cond.
PENTATONE SACD 5186 336 TT: 57:26

BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14. King Lear Overture, Op. 4.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orch/Marek Janowski, cond.
PENTATONE SACD 5186 338 TT: 66:27

This program highlights the Baltic-Finnish folk song tradition as represented with music of the four composers above. A "rune" is a Finnish poem, song or verse. The bleak Finnish landscape is often depicted in music heard here. The major work is Erik Bergman's Lapponia composed in 1975, a vocal representation of powerful dark desolation. Veljo Tormis (b. 1930) is well-represented: the brief Bridge of Song (1984) which opens the program, The Bishop and the Pagan, and seven brief St. John's Day Songs. Also included is the more familiar Rakastava (The Lover) by Sibelius which he originally wrote for male choir, later for mixed choir (heard here), and finally, for strings. Three folk songs by Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) complete the program. The chorus is splendid under Paul Hillier's knowing direction, and audio could not be bettered. This is a class production, with complete texts in Estonian, French, English and German.

This site has mentioned previous Pentatone issues of Berg, Schumann and Dvorák (REVIEW), and Strauss (REVIEW). Now we have the most successful issue from the label's collaboration with the Strasbourg Philharmonic and their conductor, Marc Albrecht, who has led the orchestra since 2006. This imaginative coupling begins with The Sorcerer's Apprentice given an appropriately buoyant reading, followed by Ravel's complete Mother Goose ballet. The filler is a 19-minute excerpt from Charles Koechlin's major work, The Jungle Book, the movement called Les Bandar-Log. In this, Mowgli is kidnapped by a troop of mischievous monkeys, a group of obnoxious creatures that chatter constantly, their sounds imaginatively suggested by Koechlin's scoring. Audio is excellent, but it is unfortunate more music wasn't included: 57:26 is sparse playing time these days.

The latest Pittsburgh Symphony/Marek Janowski release offers music of Berlioz, the ever-present Symphonie fantastique with the lesser-known King Lear Overture as a filler. The symphony has long been a favorite of conductors, and currently ArkivMusik lists more than 150 recordings by more than 70 conductors. Over the years, most conductors have wanted their interpretations to be on disk, and some conductors have recorded it multiple times. This new Janowski version surely is among the best—a no nonsense approach that keeps things moving in a most convincing way; even the second movement waltz has energy. And there are plenty of orchestral fireworks in the final two movements, with the Pittsburgh Symphony in top form. Instead of the Roman Carnival Overture that usually is paired with Fantastique, here we have the King Lear Overture, a welcome change. It, too, is magnificently played. Supposedly these are live recordings made in Heinz Hall October/November 2009, but there is no sign whatever of an audience. Producer Job Maarse did an outstanding job, and the SACD sound is full and rich. Recommended!

R.E.B. (September 2010)