SIBELIUS:  Lemminkainen Legends, Op. 22.  En Saga, Op. 9.
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Mikko Franck, cond.

Ondine ODE-953. [F] [DDD]  TT: 73:43

A major-league winner from a youthful conductor—he didn't begin formal podium study until 1995!—who could prove to be his teacher, Jorma Panula's, greatest prize since Esa-Pekka Salonen or Osmo V”nsk”.  In fact, he creams Salonen and the LA-la-land Phil in a pairing of these same works, with the sole exception of the last Lemmink”inen Legend—the return from Tuonela—which Salonen conducts hell-for-leather, as it should go ideally. Mikko Franck takes almost a minute longer to let all thematic strands and scoring details be heard. The great performance of this music, though, in my obsessive experience was Paavo Berglund's with  the Philharmonia Orchestra (but not his Bournemouth SO performance of the entire suite) on a short-measure cassette that EMI has remastered along with its companion works, and filled-out with The Oceanides from their Berglund archive. The CD, a real bargain on Seraphim, retains Berglung's Tapiola, which is the most thrilling—indeed terrifying during the storm section—ever recorded.  Now that belongs in every Sibelius collection.  

I can't recall an earlier version of the complete Four Legends from the '"Kalevala"  (the work's formal title, since the randy, roguish folk-hero Lemmink”inen doesn't appear in the second and most popular one, The  (Black) Swan of Tuonela)—than Lukas Foss' with the Buffalo Philharmonic.  Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphians followed on EMI, but this too was less than a revelation.  Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National on Chandos got me deeper into the piece than Neeme J”rvi  with his Gothenburghers  on BIS, or Leif Segerstam (I forget the label—didn't keep it), or the Bournemouth-based Berglund. I haven't heard J”rvi's son Paavo yet, but the reviews were poorish, and what I know of his conducting on other discs is, to paraphrase Ed Sullivan, rill slowish without revealing anything of import that colleagues haven't given us up to tempo.  Lotsa luck, Cincinnati, where Paavo J.  succeeds Jesus López-Cobos.

All this is by way of introduction to Mikko Franck, who makes more structural as well as expressive sense of Legends 1-3 than any I've managed to hear. Timings look to be on the slow side—overall 53:48—but there is no sense of dawdling, or effects for their own sake in these proto-Lisztian pieces, originally composed in 1893-95 but unheard in their entirety until 1935, after which Sibelius retouched The Maidens of Saari (his absolutely last surviving music for orchestra). 10:11 for The Black Swan may be brinksmanship, but the quality of the playing—marvelous English horn solos by Bo Eriksson!—and the plasticity of phrasing sustain Franck's poetic tempi and dark vision. Lemmink”inen in Tuonela, which Sibelius changed from first to third place in his final version, is the trickiest to pull off, but young Franck is undaunted: he knows how to make it work as well as sound (if one can separate those components). If I ran an orchestra, I'd sign him for an extended guest-stint. V”nsk”, too, but not in the same season unless the audience agreed to support a Sibelius festival.

En Saga (that's "A Saga" in English) was a 1892 work that Sibelius reworked a decade later at the suggestion of Ferruccio Busoni, for a concert at Berlin, and has been a staple ever since in the repertoire of conductors from Toscanini and De Sabata to Furtw”ngler and Karajan. My benchmark performance remains Toscanini's with the NYPhil-Sym of 1936, in Volume 2 of that orchestra's annual multi-disc series (an NBCSO version  on RCA  is less supple, less inevitable).  But Franck's, at almost the same timing (19:46), digs deep and has plenty of thrills as the unspecified story heats up. It also has a coda of extraordinary hush, leaving a century of Sibelius conductors as fond advocates but few as persuasive.

Add the fact that Swedish Radio Orchestra sounds like that nation's premiere ensemble—the playing is spot-on, and polished without being simply surface gloss—in a recording of great power and amplitude, not 24-bit but so what.  As I started out saying, a major-league winner; but wait, make that world-class. No Sibelian should overlook it; in the labyrinth of Four Legends, Mikko Franck has slain a minotaur of obfuscation.

R.D. (Nov. 2000)