Ondine's booklet tells us that the young Finnish conductor Mikko Franck (a graduate of Helsinki's Sibelius Academy and still just in his early 20s) has already been creating quite a stir in Scandinavia--no wonder, if this incredibly promising debut CD is anything to go by. En Saga immediately proclaims a vital and intelligent personality on the podium. Textures are imaginatively sifted, phrases thoughtfully shaped and there's a strong sense of slumbering, bardic atmosphere--in the dusky coda the clarinet's unforgettably poignant song resonates with an elemental mystery as old as time itself. The Lemminkainen Legends are even more distinctive, nowhere more so than in the opening "Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari", which Franck surveys in extraordinarily individual fashion (the love music now glows with a voluptuous, positively Wagnerian ardour). "The Swan of Tuonela" glides across the water with a sombre, lofty majesty, while the strings' dusky tremolandi in "Lemminkainen in Tuonela" really do chill to the marrow. Even in "Lemminkainen's Return" Franck artfully avoids any hint of excitable bluster. While not displacing Segerstam's masterly and characterful Legends (also on Ondine) at the top of the pile, Franck's intensely stimulating interpretation certainly demands to be experienced. --Andrew Achenbach
Most of the remaining tracks are promising without being quite so remarkable. I compared "En Saga", which opens this disc, to my reference version, Colin Davis' vivid interpretation done with the London Symphony on RCA. Franck doesn't equal Davis' amazing combination of exciting pacing, delicate blending of instruments and a visionary conclusion, but he does provide a solid and successful interpretation, although the dream-like ending does drag a bit. The final two tableaux from "Lemminkainen" also are done well, although the versions aren't as fine as the two outstanding recordings of the Four Legends I have, the still excellent Eugene Ormandy recording and a very original and individual recent version by Leif Segerstam (also on Ondine).
The one track that I found unsatisfactory is the extensive opening Legend, "The Maidens of Saari", where Franck and the Swedish Radio Symphony show insufficient finesse in the wind playing. Instead of swelling dynamics -a gradual increase in volume -- the winds often simply enter. This is not the way to play this Legend.
Another virtue of this recording is an audiophile-grade recording job by Ondine, a label with a well-deserved reputation for engineering excellence. This may be one of the best sounding discs in my collection. Because of that engineering and a remarkable interpretation of the oft-performed "Swan", I am giving this 5 stars. I look forward to hearing more from Franck, who most recently has been conducting the Finnish Opera in his native Helsinki.
Mikko Franck captures the varying moods of the pieces to perfection. The frequently brooding nature of the pieces, in particular the Swan of Tuonela, is balanced by the excitements of the faster sections as in Lemminkainen's Return and the final build-up in En Saga. Throughout. the Swedish orchestra deliver playing of great commitment.
This is a very fine disc throughout and certainly should be short-listed for purchase by anyone interested in the presented program.
In the years since that experiment, I have repeated it many times over, both with the music of Sibelius and with the music of a wide range of other composers. For reasons that I am totally incapable of explaining, the effect has always worked best for Sibelius. (This is almost to the total exclusion of other composers, quite a few of whom I otherwise rank at least as high as Sibelius in terms of more conventional music values.) So I quite simply accepted the fact that there is something special in the ability of Sibelius as a shamanic conjuror, whether that was his intent or not. Certainly, others can listen to his works as "absolute" music and not share this odd conclusion of mine.
Of all the music written by him, the tone poems are certainly at the top of this "lights out" experience. While I will not attempt to list and rank every one of them in terms of this eerie phenomenon, certain ones - "Pojola's Daughter," "Tapiola," "Nightride and Sunrise," the "Lemminkäinen Legends" - would be included. And "En Saga." Definitely, always, and first at the top, "En Saga." This led, over time, to a collecting frenzy, to see if it were possible to pick a performance which outdid all the others in terms of this effect. For quite a length of time, my personal "best of breed" had been the Ashkenazy performance on Decca, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, coupled with the 5th Symphony.
Now, along comes this 22-year-old kid, Mikko Franck, pretty much out of nowhere (actually, out of the Sibellius Academy) to turn matters upside-down. In a phrase, I need search and spend no longer, because Maestro Franck truly has the measure of this music.
This is the most visceral, exciting, shamanic and best-performed and recorded "En Saga" there is, in my humble opinion. I cannot find enough fine words to describe the playing of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. But I will single out the principal clarinetist, who has a major part toward the end of the work, done to absolute perfection.
The "Lemminkäinen Legends" are performed with equal aplomb. For those who are familiar only with the most famous of these, "The Swan of Tuonela," it needs to be said that the other three legends are of equal interest and significance. The final movement, "Lemminkäinen's Return," while shorter than "En Saga," matches it in its shamanic conjuring ability.
I can only hope that the next Sibelius project for Franck will include the other tone poems noted in the third paragraph of this review. I cannot see how this young man could possibly fail at these, given what he accomplishes in this album under review.
Try this album with the lights out yourself. You too might reach a similar conclusion, with equally enhanced listening and ability to conjure up those far-North vistas.