Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Svanevit (Swanwhite) – complete incidental music, JS189 (1908) [29:29] Ödlan (The Lizard) – complete incidental music, Op. 8 (1909) [25:50] Ett ensamt skidspår (A Lonely Ski Trail), JS77b (1948) [3:45] Grevinnans konterfej (The Countess’ Portrait), JS88 (1905) [4:29]
Riho Eklundh (narrator)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Turku, Finland, 5 February 2014, 10 September 2014, 6 February 2014, 24 January 2014. DDD NAXOS 8.573341 [63:34]
This is the fifth volume in the highly desirable series of Naxos releases of Sibelius’s incidental music for the theatre under the baton of Leif Segerstam. As so often with this composer
Swanwhite is better known in the form of the suite subsequently extracted from the complete score. For this play by Strindberg, with its highly un-Strindbergian plot, Sibelius wrote for a small theatre orchestra of a mere eleven players. It must be admitted that the suite with its fuller instrumentation is generally more satisfactory as a listening experience. In particular it seems most odd that, with a harp playing such an important part in the drama, Sibelius was denied – presumably on economic grounds – the use of a harp in his original band. He seems to have welcomed the opportunity to reinstate the instrument in his orchestral suite. Having said that, his imitation of the harp in the pizzicato strings is highly effective as a substitute. It sounds to me as though Segerstam here augments the string section to a rather larger body than the original eleven players – or maybe the resonant acoustic helps to give that impression. In the suite Sibelius combined a number of theatrical cues to produce a series of more substantial movements but the sequence we have here remains a highly pleasurable listening experience. In his booklet notes Dominic Wells compares the sound of the music to Grieg; but comparisons should be made rather with Grieg’s concert miniatures rather than his theatrical scores for Peer Gynt or Sigurd Jorsalfar, which with their larger orchestras can indulge themselves in much more overtly dramatic writing.
The score for The lizard is even less well known than that for Swanwhite, consisting as it does of a mere pair of movements for strings. While the first is fairly brief, the second is an extended slow meditation which it appears may have been intended to underscore the dialogue describing the dream visions of one of the characters. As such, Dominic Wells suggests, it is “seldom performed, possibly because it seems too closely connected with the stage action to be suitable for a concert performance”. In this it shares similar difficulties with the score for Everyman written several years later. Possibly it might have been possible to include the spoken dialogue here, but the music does stand up in its own right - more so than with Everyman - and it is very beautiful indeed.
As a filler for the main scores on this disc, Segerstam again enterprisingly investigates some of the composer’s most neglected pieces. Here we have Sibelius’s two melodramas A lonely ski trail and The Countess’s portrait, both written for a narrator with orchestral accompaniment. In fact the first of these pieces was originally intended for piano, but here we have a version with harp and strings, as we had on the only alternative recording, that by Osmo Vänskä on BIS.
Comparisons between Segerstam’s performances and other recordings must inevitably focus as before on BIS’s compendious Sibelius Edition which in the current listings provides the only alternative readings of any of these scores in the form we have them here. Once again Segerstam demonstrates that he is not afraid to allow the music to make its impact in its own time, even when the tension may threaten to hang fire. Both orchestral playing and recording are superlative. Naxos’s presentation is as excellent as in the previous issues in this series, with complete texts and translations for the two brief melodramas.