When you think of early, pre-Hollywood film scores, your mind generally goes to Leningrad or Berlin, not to Stockholm, but that’s where this glorious music had its origins, in 1919 - although both the director, Mauritz Stiller (1883–1928), and composer, Armas Järnefelt (1869–1958), were Finnish. One of the advantages of silent film over the talkies, of course, is that the music didn’t have to step back to allow room for spoken dialogue; indeed, it often had to step forward and pick up or enhance the narrative generated by the action onscreen.
And so what Järnefelt – Sibelius’ brother-in-law – provided here is far more than background music: it is a musical narrative in its own right.
Järnefelt’s 100 minutes of full orchestral score are divided here into seven “chapters”, and each of those could be further divided into its constituent elements, as if they were a series of loosely constructed symphonic poems – imagine a Finnish version of Alfvén’s Swedish Rhapsodies.
Since Sången om den eldrøda blomman (Song of the Scarlet Flower) was a prodigal-son story of a country lad who leaves his home to sow his oats in the city, there is both a good deal of Sibelian nature-painting and reworking of folk tunes. The fifth chapter features solo fiddle and harmonium, but they briefly give way to a fizzing fugato that really points up Järnefelt’s mastery of orchestral writing. Indeed, time and again you’ll notice some adventurous touch of colour and wonder quite how he achieved that effect.
Kimmo Korhonen’s booklet text gives an account of the “misadventures” of the score, which was reconstructed for a 2017 revival from the original manuscript and parts by Jani Kyllönen and Jaakko Kuusisto; the latter conducts the Gävle Symphony Orchestra in this beautifully played account, captured in limpid sound by the Ondine recording team.
I knew Järnefelt for a fine composer and was looking forward to my encounter with this score, but I was taken aback by the sheer quality of the music – all of it, since there is no padding anywhere here at all. Sure, some of it is rather relaxed, but Järnefelt is capable of taking the simplest melodic line, minimally accompanied (sometimes, indeed, with no accompaniment at all), and holding your attention for considerable spans of time, often through the sheer beauty of what he is creating. In turn charming, enchanting, amusing and moving,
Sången om den eldrøda blomman has proved to be a delightful surprise.
JÄRNEFELT: Sången om den eldrøda blomman: complete film score
Gävle Symphony Orchestra; Jaakko Kuusisto (conductor)
Ondine ODE 1328-2D