Once, when much younger, I performed a little experiment while listening to the First Symphony of Jean Sibelius. I simply turned the lights out and listened to it in total darkness. The experience was a revelation; simply put, I was transported to an imaginary world in which my heightened senses could easily conjure up the far-North vistas that Sibelius' music captures.
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.