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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Incidental Music
Belshazzarís Feast, Op.51, Concert Suite
Swanwhite, Op. 54, Concert Suite
Scènes historiques I, Op.25, Concert Suite
Scènes historiques II, Op.66, Suite

Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Ari Rasilainen
Recorded at NRK Broadcasting Hall, Oslo, Norway, February 2001 DDD
FINLANDIA RECORDS 0927-41935-2 [74.10]


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Though he never became an operatic composer (completing only one short, minor work, The Maiden in the Tower in 1896), Sibelius was always drawn to the stage, and wrote incidental theatre music throughout his composing life. The works assembled on this enterprising disc show a mix of relatively familiar fare with some neglected items, and the whole thing, whilst maybe not top-drawer Sibelius, is very enjoyable.

I suppose the most well known pieces will be the suites entitled Scènes historiques (Historical Pictures), which have been recorded a number of times. The first set was inspired by a series of tableaux depicting aspects of Finlandís history, and was turned into the concert suite we know today in 1911. This seems to have prompted him to begin work on a second set in 1912, though this is a wholly original composition, using for its inspiration Finnish folkloric tales. On the whole I prefer this second set, which has at times echoes of both the Third and Sixth Symphonies, especially the opening movement, entitled The Chase. This is extremely vivid picture painting, and Sibelius seems to revel in having an image of magic forests and exciting hunts to portray in music. The final section, called At the Draw-bridge (and inviting obvious comparison with At the Castle Gate), is a moving and powerful conclusion, full of atmosphere. I like Ari Rasilainenís pacing here, and though generally throughout the disc he errs on the steady side, this is no bad thing in music of brooding nobility, as much of this is.

The music from Belshazzarís Feast was new to me, though it has been recorded a few times, most recently by Neeme Järvi, in his complete BIS cycle. I find it the least convincing music on the disc, with the cod-orientalism sounding a bit cheap and contrived. The third movement, entitled Night Music, sounds to me the most successful, with evocative orchestration lending a more genuine atmosphere; the beautiful solo flute playing of Tom Andreassen must be mentioned here as adding to the enjoyment.

The great discovery for me (though again, it has been recorded on BIS and Ondine), was the music for Strindbergís late Symbolist fantasy play, Swanwhite. Sibelius and Strindberg were great mutual admirers, and the original score, which ran to fourteen musical numbers, dates from 1908. Later in that year, Sibelius adapted a seven-movement suite from the material, and this follows the action pretty faithfully. This is marvellous stuff, full of Sibelian thumbprints; the long pedal points over which woodwind detail (usually in thirds) can ethereally float; the slow, rocking ostinatos that sound, in Robert Laytonís words "like massive, swinging pendulums, timeless and full of foreboding". The finale, entitled Song of Praise, may be the most luscious piece of Sibelius Iíve heard in a while, positively Tchaikovskian in its sweep and grandeur, and never sentimental.

The playing of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra is mostly excellent, with solo wind playing well characterised, and strings reasonably full and resonant, though it does make me hanker to hear the Berlin or Vienna Phil. in some of this less well-known music. The conductor (a name new to me) obviously has great sympathy and understanding of the material, letting the great arched phrases unfold naturally. A more fiery temperament would not have gone amiss in places, but on the whole this is very satisfying music making. The recorded sound is glorious, wide-ranging and detailed, with an ample acoustic and plenty of bloom. So good is it, that Iím sure it makes the orchestra often sound better than they are!

As Iíve pointed out, all this material has been recorded by the specialist labels, but if this grouping of pieces (which is logical and appropriate) appeals, donít hesitate.

Tony Haywood


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