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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Scènes historiques I, Op.25 (1899, 1911) [18:12] (All’Overtura; Scena; Festivo)
Scènes historiques II, Op.66 (1912) [19:42] (The Chase (Overture); Love Song; At the Drawbridge)
King Christian II Suite, Op.27 (1898) [25:34] (Nocturne; Elégie; Musette; Serenade; Ballade)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. Wellington Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 16-17 August 2006. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English and German
NAXOS 8.570068 [63:28]
Experience Classicsonline

 

The first Suite of Scènes historiques and the King Christian Suite are early works by Sibelius. The former was distilled from music for a nationalist pageant written in 1899, music from which Finlandia was later excerpted, the latter dating from 1898.  To put them in context with the symphonies, the First Symphony, Op.39, still somewhat influenced by Tchaikovsky, dates from 1899, the Second, in which he arguably finds his true voice, in 1901-2.  The second Suite of Scènes dates from around the time of the Fourth Symphony, though, like all the music here, it is much more approachable than the symphony.

Despite being early works, most of the music on this recording is instantly recognisable as Sibelius, especially the Nocturne of the King Christian Suite.  He had not completely shaken off the influence of Tchaikovsky – did he ever fully do so? – even in the Nocturne, but this is all fine, likeable music, well worth hearing, yet these works have received very few outings, live or on record in recent years.  These pieces deserve to be heard in this format, instead of simply as fillers for the symphonies. 

Scènes Historiques I was arranged in 1911.  The opening All’Overtura depicts the bard of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic; Scena evokes the drama of the Thirty Years War; Festivo is set at the court of the Swedish governor but its spirit is, surprisingly, not that of Sweden but of the Spanish dance, the Bolero. 

The only competition in the two Scènes historiques Suites comes from a rival budget-price CD, a Chandos Collect recording, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Alexander Gibson (CHAN6591, coupled with Rakastava and Valse lyrique), a very fine disc.  My MusicWeb colleague Bob Briggs, reviewing a ClassicO recording in less than enthusiastic terms, recommended this Chandos CD as “an excellent example of how fine a Sibelius conductor Gibson was ... [in] a good selection of Sibelius.” 

Gibson is an acknowledged Sibelian but the new recording is equal to the challenge.  I had encountered the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on other Naxos recordings, but I had not previously heard Pietari Inkinen in action.  It is soon apparent that he has a real feel for the Sibelius idiom.  He and the NZSO acquit themselves well from the start; the powerful opening of All’Overtura is well captured, the music seeming to rise mysteriously from the mist.  The Scena opens a little sedately for a Tempo di menuetto, but comes to life as it should at the climax, while the mood of Festivo, Tempo di Bolero, is also well caught.  Inkinen’s tempo in Festivo is slower than Beecham’s classic 78 recording, reissued on Naxos 8.110867, but then most conductors are slower than Beecham. 

The Second Suite, composed in 1912, has only a tenuous link with the 1899 pageant which gave rise to the First Suite.  The development of Sibelius’s style in the intervening years is apparent in all three pieces, with typical Sibelian horns in The Chase and a strong melody with harp accompaniment in Love Song, all well captured on this recording  At the Drawbridge, probably the finest piece from this suite, often used to be performed on its own (was it not a Beecham ‘lollipop’?); here it receives a suitably jaunty performance. 

The King Christian Suite was adapted from music for a play by Adolf Paul, depicting the love of the king for a Dutch commoner, Dyvecke.  When she is murdered by his rival, a Danish nobleman, his revenge is passionate.  When Sibelius rearranged the music, he made the Nocturne the first movement and Ballade the last, thus framing the music with tender, swelling love music and blazing passion.  The NZSO and Inkinen capture the tender opening love scene and Christian’s revenge in the blazing close equally effectively.  The Musette is lively; in the Serenade from the Third Act, with music for a court ball, too, they match the mood perfectly. 

The chief competition for the King Christian Suite also comes from Chandos, this time in the form of a highly-regarded full-price recording of the complete incidental music.  (The Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Peter Sakari on CHAN9518, coupled with Pelleas and Melisande and movements from Swanwhite.)  In addition to the movements of the Suite, Sakari includes a Minuet and the Fool’s Song. 

Rob Barnett was “not at all sure” about Shuntaro Sato’s Sibelius collection on Finlandia 0927-49598-2, though he liked his steady pulse in the King Christian music.

At the same budget price as the Naxos recording, Regis RRC1272 offers Pelleas and Melisande, King Christian Suite and the Karelia Suite, with the Philharmonia under Batiz and LSO under Tjeknavorian. Cheaper still is an EMI 2-CD set of Sibelius music, including the King Christian Suite, conducted by Dorati and Gibson Rob Barnett’s Bargain of the Month in May 2004 (EMI Classics Gemini 5 857852 2). 

An even better bargain is offered by the 8-CD box of Sibelius Symphonies and other works, including the King Christian Suite, under Paavo Berglund, Christopher Howell’s MusicWeb Bargain of the Month in February 2002 and still available for around £25 in the UK (EMI 5 74485 2). 

If you really want to go for broke, go for the Sibelius bargain of bargains, The Essential Sibelius (BIS-CD1697-1700, 15 CDs for the price of four), Rob Barnett’s MusicWeb Bargain of the Month in January 2007, contains all the music on this Naxos recording and much more. 

I cannot vouch personally for any of these versions, though they come with good credentials.  I can vouch for the high quality of Inkinen’s interpretation and the playing of the NZSO. 

The Naxos recording is good, wide-ranging but just a little too close.  Initially I had the volume a couple of dB higher than usual, having forgotten to turn it down after listening to a CD which needed a bit of a boost.  The result was overpowering until I turned things down and, even then, I thought the sound a little too immediate – not a serious problem, however. 

The fact that the notes are by Naxos’s long-standing expert Keith Anderson is practically a guarantee of their quality. 

Brian Wilson 
see also Review by Bob Briggs


 



 


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