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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Pelléas et Mélisande – Complete Incidental Music, JS 147 (1905) [33:34]
Musik zu einer Szene (1904), [6:29]
Valse Lyrique, op.96a (1921) [4:47]
Autrefois – Scène pastorale, op.96b (1919) [5:36]
Valse chevaleresque, op.96c (1921) [4:47]
Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakkob von Julin, JS 135/a (1925) [2:35]
Pia Pajala (soprano), Sari Nordqvist (mezzo)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Turku, Finland, 2014
NAXOS 8.573301 [57:49]

Two of my colleagues have already provided favourable reviews of this release, in this projected six-disc survey of the lesser known music of Sibelius. The final instalment Scaramouche is due out at the end of October 2015. The complete incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande is the only volume I have heard. It was given to me by a friend, and I was so taken by it that I decided to add my own two-penny worth.

It dates from 1905, a year after the composer’s move to his country retreat at Järvenpää, to escape the bustle and pressures of city life, and was the result of a commission from the Swedish Theatre. Significantly, Arnold Schoenberg’s realisation of the Maeterlinck play was completed the year before in February 1903 and was premiered on 25 January 1905 at the Musikverein in Vienna. Sibelius’ premiere took place two months later on 17 March. Maeterlinck had been undergoing a surge in popularity at the time. Debussy wrote his eponymous opera in 1898.

Sibelius’ incidental music was an ambitious project, becoming the highlight of the Helsinki theatre season, and listening to this beguiling score, suffused with an innate quality of diaphanous warmth, one can understand why. When he later came to make a concert suite of it, he adapted the ten-movement score to just nine, omitting track 9, marked [no tempo marking] (Scene 2). I don’t really know why, as it’s a deliciously evocative piece, where the solo cello and woodwinds have a raptly prominent narrative.

Segerstam’s is a spacious account, which allows us to luxuriate in the rich, lightly-textured tapestry of Sibelius’ orchestration. All the subtleties and nuances of the composer’s scoring are realized to effect. The soprano Pia Pajala offers a heartfelt account of ‘The three Blind Sisters’, Mélisande’s song from Act III, scene 2.

The remaining items, with the exception of Autrefois – Scène pastorale, op.96b, are waltzes, and all make a pleasing listening experience. I’ve never heard any of them before, and am more than grateful to make their acquaintance. The mezzo-soprano Sari Nordqvist joins Pia Pajala for the Autrefois, and their exquisite voices blend together admirably.

Dominic Wells has provided some interesting and informative notes, and Swedish texts and English translations of the two vocal items prove an added bonus. On the basis of this outstanding release, I’m tempted to explore the other volumes in the series with enthusiasm.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews: Gwyn Parry-Jones and Jonathan Woolf


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