This isn't just the umpteenth recording of the Sibelius Cto., nor is it a case of another international virtuoso ticking off another box in his discography. Frank Peter Zimmermann puts an unusual stamp on the work, because he is in his way quite literal. Like Heifetz, he resists the romantic overtones of Sibelius's post-Tchaikovsky idiom. Instead of emoting, zimmermann plays the notes almost as cleanly as he might play Bach, but with real sensitivity in the phrasing -- Romanticism enters in as a warm atmosphere but not as big gestures. The playing is still big in scale, and when Sibelius wants an aching outpouring, Zimmermann delivers it, but in between he returns to quieter emotional plane. What I like is that tis plane is mysterious, foreshadowing the less romantic, more enigmatic and mystical side of the composer that would come out in the symphonies after the First.
The Helsinki Phil. must be heartedly tired of this work, but they don't show it. Conductor conductor John Storgards, who is Finnish, 46, and himself a violinist, stays in line with his soloist, providing a restrained but expressive accompaniment. Frankly, I am tired of the Sibelius Concerto, so this change of pace was very refreshing. It's often as crisp as the Heifetz but less chilly and laser-focused.
As for the fillers, they are just as long taken together as the main work. The Bard was composed in 1913, ten years after the concerto, and is eight minutes long. Evocative, hushed chords introduce a bardic harp in rippling arpeggios rather than a leading melody. I take Sibelius's incidental music with a grain of salt -- there are too many duds -- but this miniature tone poem, like its big brother En Saga, weaves an indefinable spell, all the more cryptic for seeming to be made up of fragments blown on the wind. I was very glad to make its acquaintance, especially with Ondine's lovely transparent sound.
By comparison, the Wood Nymph is a sizable tone poem (24 min.) dating from 1895, three years after the young composer became a national hero with his epic Kullervo Symphony. In his maturity Sibelius grew skeptical of is output form that era -- he suppressed Kullervo in his lifetime. The musical idiom is episodic and melodious, akin to Dvorak's late symphonic poems, and the tale upon which it is based reminds one of Mahler's enchanted forest in Das Klagende Lied and Bartok's Wooden Prince. It concerns "the adventures of the hero Björn in the forest, where evil dwarfs are carrying out their malicious schemes and a curvaceous wood nymph lures Björn into making love to her. The spell he is under cannot be broken: Björn can no longer love his wife. Nor does he feel like working. He dies alone and full of yearning." To me, the level of musical interest is about the same as in Karelia--both contain a striking march. A loose-limbed, sprawling ramble brings by events evocative of storms, magic, and Nature.
Sibelius conducted The Wood Nymph often but kept it in manuscript rather than publishing it. It wasn't until the 1990s that the music was rediscovered and found to be emotionally charged and exciting. This new reading is beautifully recorded and leads me to eat my words. Sibelius incidental music can be very rewarding at times, and although we hear little of the mature composer, this tone poem would please any concert audience.