The play by Hjalmar Procopé, a Swedish-speaking Finn,
called Belshazzar's Feast is now, by and large, forgotten. The
playwright was a friend of Sibelius and it was perhaps only natural that
he should be called upon to write the incidental music. Both of these
men had interests in the Finnish independence movement. Like Walton's
and Sitwell's much later production, it portrays the corruption and intrigue
at the court of Babylon. Robert Layton has condemned the original play
as being of little interest. There was apparently a contemporary cartoon
of Procopé being held aloft by Sibelius!
There have been relatively few recordings of this work.
A notable exception is the BIS CD (CD 359) as part of the complete Sibelius
cycle. However it remains relatively unknown to all but the most intrepid
of Sibelius explorers.
It is difficult to say what is wrong with this music.
Perhaps it is simply that I have difficulty with a number of short diverse
movements thrown together. It is rather like some of the film music
scores that are now becoming available on Chandos and Marco Polo - interesting
but perhaps lacking coherence. It may be that I just do not sense the
unity of the work. Certainly there is no development of ideas. Yet what
we have here are a number of almost impressionistic pieces; movements
that show the composer's ability in writing music that is at once poetic,
sensitive and often rather beautiful. The easiest way to approach this
music is to take each movement as a separate entity and just sit back
and enjoy. I like the opening Oriental March although it has
its critics. They imagine that it lacks interest. The finest of the
four movements is the hauntingly beautiful Night Music. This
piece could well stand on its own as a concert miniature. The last movement
is attractive framing the two dances: those of Life and of Death. Yet
as a whole it is difficult to see this work becoming a favourite. It
is perhaps just a little too understated; a little too unlike Finlandia
or the Karelia Suite to become popular. Very much music for the
cognoscenti, I am afraid.
Robert Layton is correct in his statement that Swanwhite
is more often talked about than played. Certainly the consensus among
critics seems to be that this relatively unknown piece of incidental
work is rather good. Obviously it is unlikely to be heard within its
original context; that of Strindberg's play. Sibelius produced some
fourteen scenes for the original stage production. He chose to extract
seven of them for the present suite. This music is a little disappointing.
Perhaps lacks colour and pizzazz! However critics and listeners are
coming to recognise that this is actually quite a sensitive piece of
music. Once more it is its subtlety that makes it lack the popularity
of some of Sibelius more extrovert works.
Strindberg's play is a symbolic tale; evil is represented
by the wicked stepmother. She is overcome by the good and fair Princess
Swanwhite. We have the cries of the peacock in the first movement, then
a gorgeous movement for solo harp and woodwind. There is a waltz, albeit
a slow languorous one in the section entitled 'The Maidens with Roses.'
'Listen! The robin sings' is almost light music. Lots of interesting
orchestral timbres here. 'The Prince alone' is quite melancholic.
There is a fine Song of Praise to conclude the suite. Is this
last movement a precursor of the Seventh Symphony? Almost certainly;
I have to rely on the programme notes for information
on the Scènes Historiques. Sibelius was very much a part
of the independence movement at a time when Finland was trying to set
itself free from Russian jurisdiction. Apparently an 'entertainment'
was organised to support the newspapers. The press had been forced to
give up its editorial independence by Czarist censorship. The main event
of the evening's entertainment was a series of tableaux depicting scenes
from Finland's past history. Sibelius had been given the job of writing
the music. The last of them was an image of 'Finland Awakes'
- this used music that was later to be fashioned into the famous Finlandia.
Some twelve years later, Sibelius took up this music
and utilising much of it produced the first of the Scènes
Historiques. The first of the three scenes represents the Wise Man
of the Kaleva sitting on a rock and playing music. The second illustrates
the Thirty Years War from the 17th century; this is all good
stuff complete with a fine march. The last of the first set is the Festivo
- written originally to accompany a tableau illustrating festivities
in a 16th century castle.
A year later Sibelius produced a second set of Scènes.
This time he composed new music. This was not based on themes for the
original 1899 tableau. We have here a fine picture of a chase or hunt.
The second scene is a Love Song. This is sentimental and is rather good.
It proves that Sibelius could compose music that was both heart-easing
and heart-warming. The last movement is almost like light music; nothing
too deep and soul-searching here. A nice finish to some rather restrained
I have yet to decide whether these two suites are stand-alone
or ought to be played in tandem. Perhaps the truth of the matter is
that they will rarely be played at all.
This is an interesting disc, well recorded and well
played. The programme notes are sufficient. Anyone wishing to gain further
information can consult a wealth of books and a number Internet articles
on these works.
In spite of this being an attractive production, it
will never be popular. It is very much a niche market. It is a byway
of not only classical music but of Sibelius himself. It will be vital
for those enthusiasts who have to collect recordings of every note that
the composer wrote. However for the average person who enjoys the Finnish
master's music it will never eclipse the more famous tone poems and