> Jean SIBELIUS - Incidental Music [JF]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Incidental Music
Belshazzar's Feast Op.51 (1906)
Swanwhite Op.54 (1908)
Scènes Historiques I and II Op.25 and Op.66 (1899, 1911 and 1912)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Ari Rasilainen
Recorded NRK Broadcasting Hall, Oslo, February 2001
FINLANDIA RECORDS 0927 41935-2 [73.34]


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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; just listen!

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 pieces.

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 symphonies.

John France

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