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Jean SIBELIUS (1857-1956)
Kuolema - complete incidental music Op. 44 [24:14]
King Kristian II
– complete incidental music, Op. 27 [35:19];
Overture in A minor [6:58]
Two Songs from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night Op. 60 [4:44]
Pia Pajala (soprano); Waltteri Torikka (baritone)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Finland, 2014
NAXOS 8.573299 [71:16]

Jean SIBELIUS (1857-1956)
Belshazzar’s Feast [21:28]
Overture in E major [11:41]
Scène de ballet
Menuetto [5;45]
Processional [4:24]
The Language of the Birds
: Wedding March [4:55]
Pia Pajala (soprano)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Finland, 2014
NAXOS 8.573300 [63:01]

Naxos should be congratulated for bringing these recordings into the Sibelius discography. The Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam is a master of this repertoire and he draws some wonderful sounds from the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra. They really excel in the hushed, poignant and delicate passages and Segerstam also generates plenty of power and excitement when required. The sound quality is excellent on both discs, the only criticism being the lack of headroom in the loudest passages. A little more air might have helped and the sound is slightly cramped but this is a minor quibble in the great scheme of things.

Turning now to the music, 8.573299 starts with the rather insubstantial Overture in A minor which does sound like a bit of rushed job with the sections copied and pasted together with little sense of formality. It also ends rather abruptly. The opening movement of Kuolema was to find fame as Valse Triste and here we have the lugubrious tune stretched to its limits without falling apart. For me it is just too slow but the orchestra is committed to the conductor’s vision of the piece. Paavali’s Song is Russian in feeling and Waltteri Torikka delivers it with enthusiasm and no want of emotion. Elsa’s Song is a beautiful elegiac piece with its use of soprano to add vocal colour. Elsa’s Song and the following Cranes were later published by the composer under the title of Scene with Cranes. A dramatic Moderato with typical Sibelian string writing leads to a final Andante with a shimmering En Saga-like opening and 50 seconds worth of tolling bells bringing the music to a strange conclusion. The Two Songs from Twelfth Night are set in Swedish and are a most peculiar coupling, one song being about death, the other one comical and lively. Both receive excellent performances from Waltteri Torikka. The King Kristian II Suite is well-known and represents Sibelius as a master of tuneful, light music. All the movements of the suite are included here but in a different order: a wonderful Grieg-like Elegy, the quirky Musette and the ravishing Nocturne being the high points. There is also the oddly named but attractive Fool’s Song of the Spider as something of a novelty.

The second disc, 8.573300 also starts with another pretty forgettable overture. This time it is the one in E major from 1891. It is similar in nature to the Karelia Overture without, unfortunately, the memorable tunes. Structurally it is way in advance of the Overture in A minor but is far too long at nearly 12 minutes. Scène de ballet was also written in 1891 and it is a far more satisfying piece than the overture. Here we have a nightmarish waltz with castanets, swirling winds and sinister undercurrents weaving their spells underneath a glamorous, schmaltzy waltz. It’s a discovery for me and I found it very enjoyable. Belshazzar’s Feast contains some glorious music. The opening alla marcia conjures up a magical Eastern procession and then Sibelius gives us a spell-binding nocturne with its enchanting flute solo, played to perfection here. The Song of the Jewish Girl, with its gently rocking accompaniment is sung here by Pia Pajala. This is simple music with instant emotional appeal. In the ensuing orchestral movements the orient is never far away and we then come to the place where the famous writing on the wall Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin makes its appearance. The Dance of Life returns briefly for a second time but this is soon snuffed out and the music becomes agitated and melancholic. This wonderful incidental music comes to a close with a second version of the Dance of Death. The Wedding March is a curiosity indeed. It is dramatic and atmospheric but bears little resemblance to a march so don’t expect Mendelssohn. Cortège is a lively good-humoured polonaise, later used in the composer’s Scènes Historiques. The disc finishes with a pretty Menuetto and a rousing, string laden Processional.

These are two exceptional Sibelius discs containing a number of rarities coupled with performances of Kuolema, King Kristian II and Belshazzar’s Feast that are as good as any available. I hope that Naxos will continue with further instalments from this team of superb Sibelians.

John Whitmore



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