Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Everyman, Op.83 (1916) [49.18]
Two Serious Melodies, Op.77 [10.17]
In memoriam, Op.59 (1910) [13.15]
Pia Pajala (soprano); Tuomas Katajala (tenor); Nicholas Söderlund (bass); Cathedralis Aboensis Choir
Mikaela Palmu (violin)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Finland, 20-24 January and 3-7 February 2014
NAXOS 8.573340 [72.50]
The highly recommendable Segerstam survey of the complete incidental music by Sibelius here reaches Volume Four with a recording of probably the composer’s least-known score in this field. Everyman, based on a Finnish translation of an adaptation of the mediaeval mystery play by Hugo von Hoffmansthal, is rarely heard today. There is only one alternative recording of any of the music in the catalogues, included in the complete conspectus of Sibelius’s music on BIS (review). The booklet note here by Dominic Wells speculates that the reason for this neglect lies in Sibelius’s failure to produce an orchestral suite from the complete score, as he did for so much of his other incidental music. I am sure that this is correct, as the substantial score is otherwise one of his most atmospheric works. Mind you, it is oddly proportioned; while the first half of the play includes only one item (a dance song) of any length, the second half comprises five major pieces featuring a Largo movement of nearly a quarter of an hour in duration [track 11]. Much of the music was also composed as an accompaniment to spoken dialogue, which had to adhere strictly to the printed notes. In other words, it was a melodrama (in the strict sense) where, as Dominic Wells puts it, “the music should be synchronised with the words and action, down to the last second”. Under the circumstances it would have been welcome if this new recording had provided actors to speak the dialogue at the appropriate points, so that the composer’s intentions could be more readily perceived. Neither this or the earlier BIS recording do so; and here we are given an extensive synopsis of the action as well as complete texts and translations of the substantial vocal movements, so to a degree listeners can supply the dramatic framework for themselves.
I have remarked in my reviews of the earlier volumes in this Naxos series that Leif Segerstam generally takes the music more slowly than in the earlier BIS survey, and the same is true here. The expansive Largo movement to which I referred in the previous paragraph takes over three minutes longer under Segerstam than it did in the performance conducted by Osmo Vänskä, as does the inexorably moving later movement [track 15] marked Largo e mesto. Some critics of Segerstam’s earlier releases have complained about the conductor’s slow speeds, but I have always found them to be well-motivated and often revelatory, as well as showing a commendable willingness to allow Sibelius’s music to speak for itself dramatically without being treated as purely concert music. To a certain extent the listener’s reactions will depend on their willingness to react to the music as a theatrical experience, and at the very least Segerstam’s approach is valuable in providing an alternative interpretation of music that is otherwise unavailable. The Largo, for example was written to underpin the dialogue between Everyman and Good Works, and would inevitably have needed to reflect the delivery of the actors. Unfortunately I have not been able to find a copy of the score which might have made this clearer.
There is considerably more vocal material here than in the earlier incidental music included in the Naxos survey, including a number of choral sections which are delivered here with passion by the choir. Pia Pajala is familiar from her earlier appearances in the series, and is as excellent as before although she has relatively little to sing. Here she is joined by newcomers Tuomas Katajala and Nicholas Söderlund, both equally good – the latter especially heartfelt in his unaccompanied duets with the soprano. The second section of the score, almost totally orchestral, is impressively gripping; Robert Layton in his Gramophone review of the Vänskä performance described it correctly as “very powerful” and commented that the Largo was “among the most searching music Sibelius ever wrote for the theatre.” The final sections with their tolling bells look forward to the music of Arvo Pärt.
The fill-ups to Everyman are also rarities, although here there are more alternatives in the catalogue although not so many in the case of In memoriam. The Two serious melodies, not originally written as a unit, exist in alternative versions for cello and for violin; the catalogue contains approximately equal numbers of both. They are very beautiful meditations, and are superbly played here with quiet intensity by Mikaela Palmu. The funeral march In memoriam, with its uncanny echoes of Mahler – not so much the Fifth Symphony, as suggested by Dominic Wells, but more of Revelge from the Knaben Wunderhorn songs – is a real discovery which does not deserve its rarity status. It is not altogether surprising to learn that it was considered appropriate for the composer’s own funeral in 1957. It makes a real impression here at Segerstam’s measured pace, and the orchestra plays with passion — the oboe solo at 8.08 is positively heartbreaking.
The recording quality is excellent and well-balanced, a good match for the twenty-year-old BIS predecessor of Everyman. This is music that should never be allowed to lie unperformed, and those who wish to make its acquaintance should not hesitate. Those who already have the BIS recording of Everyman may not wish to duplicate it — Vänkä’s quicker speeds mean that the single-disc issue can also accommodate the complete music for Belshazzar’s Feast — but newcomers to the score should be tempted by the Naxos price. Ardent Sibelians will enjoy making the acquaintance of an alternative interpretation, too.
Paul Corfield Godfrey