One of my favourite parts of Sibelius' output as a composer is his orchestral songs. They don't get the exposure of his symphonies or tone poems, but the musical value is certainly just as high. This is one of the few CD's which contain these songs, and as such it is a must-have for any true Sibelius fan.
Sibelius mainly wrote songs to the poems of nordic poets, Stagnelius, Runeberg etc. and these songs are in Swedish, except for two in Finnish. Stylistically we are talking late-romantic - but all in Sibelius' own voice.
The first six songs are for baritone and orchestra, and here the soloist is the amazing Jorma Hynninen. He has a terrific voice and sings with both intensity and emotion; from the dark and introspective "Kom nü hit, död" to the melodic "Demanten på Marssnon", his performance is deeply commited.
The six songs which follow for soprano and orchestra are a bit disappointing compared to the amazing opening tracks. Mostly due to the soprano Mari Ann Häggander. Simply put, she doesn't really have the most beautiful of voices, I think. There is a certain power and determination to her singing which fits the dynamics of Sibelius' orchestral settings, but she lacks the delicacy of tone to handle the lyrical quality of the vocal line. I suppose it is a matter of taste, and her performance is certainly not "bad" by any means, but for me it could have been better - thus only four stars.
As far as the conducting and the orchestra is concerned: While it is clear that Jorma Panula is no Paavo Berglund I really like the orchestral playing here - the Gotenburg S.O. is terrific and the entire performance is well balanced and dedicated. The sound quality is very good for a near 20 year old recording (BIS's early discs have been known to sound kind of weird) although the soloists are perhaps a bit too closely miked, most noticeably in "Luonnotar", (of which, I might add, there are far better recordings, both as far as the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra is concerned.)
Summing up: Despite some reservations regarding the female soloist, I cannot recommend this CD enough. I have not come across any other CD which features such a selection of Sibelius' best orchestral songs, and these are truly fantastic compositions! Get it, as fast as you can. It won't be availible forever!