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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kuolema (complete incidental music), JS113 (1903) [24.14]
King Christian II (complete incidental music), Op.27 (1898) [35.19]
Twelfth Night: two songs, Op.60 (1909) [4.44]
Overture in A minor, JS144 (1902) [6.58]
Pia Pajala (soprano)
Waltteri Torikka (baritone)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Finland, 2014
NAXOS 8.573299 [71.16]
Belshazzar’s Feast (complete incidental music), JS48 (1906) [21.28]
The Language of the Birds: Wedding March, JS62 (1911) [4.85]
Cortège, JS54 (1903) [6.49]
Menuetto, JS5 (1894) [5.45]
Processional, Op.113/6 (1938) [4.24]
Overture in E, JS145 (1891) [11.41]
Scène de ballet, JS163 (1891) [7.59]
Pia Pajala (soprano)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Finland, 2014
NAXOS 8.573300 [63.01]
Pelléas et Mélisande (complete incidental music), JS147 (1905)
Music for a scene (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, JS135a (1925) [2.36]
Pia Pajala (soprano)
Sari Nordqvist (mezzo)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Finland, 2014
NAXOS 8.573301 [57.49]

Sibelius was an incredibly prolific composer, writing music for any and every occasion in Finnish musical life - in his earlier career often driven by economic considerations. His music for various dramatic productions forms a considerable element in his massive output. For many years this corpus of incidental music was largely familiar in the form of concert suites and excerpts arranged by the composer himself, and often scored for larger forces than would have been available in the pit orchestras of his day. But the original versions of the music remained largely unexplored until BIS commenced their mammoth undertaking to record all the music of Sibelius, a compendium which brought to light many works which had remained unrecorded for years ... if ever. On those discs the role of conductor was principally undertaken by Neeme Järvi and the then largely unknown Osmo Vänskä; but now Naxos have ambarked on the task of recording the whole of Sibelius’s theatre output under a single baton, that of the veteran Leif Segerstam.

Segerstam has a long and honourable reputation as a conductor of Sibelius, as well as being a composer in his own right; but, as is often the case with composer-conductors, his recordings have not been devoid of controversy. This has usually centred on his perceived penchant for slow speeds; but his sometimes unorthodox interpretations are always well-considered even when they may take the unprepared listener by surprise. The BIS recordings too had their share of controversial speeds, notably Järvi’s extraordinarily slow reading of the first movement of Karelia; but by and large they tended to give us a fairly fast traversal of the music, and it is notable on this first disc from Segerstam that in the two sets of incidental music every single movement (with one solitary exception) takes longer than Vänskä on BIS, sometimes by a minute or more.
Now some listeners who have heard these pieces under Vänskä may find Segerstam’s slower speeds positively self-indulgent; but I would not agree. It seems to me that Segerstam is not afraid that the music might sound boring away from its stage context, and is prepared to trust Sibelius’s judgement in the matter of tempi and in his willingness to allow every detail to be heard. Not that this is easy to be dogmatic about speeds; Sibelius himself seems to have been open to all manner of differing interpretations, endorsing performances of his symphonies by various conductors which differed wildly from each other in their selection of pace. But hearing the ‘scene with cranes’ from Kuolema (tracks 4-5) at this speed produces an effect of rapt contemplation which Vänskä somehow misses, or at least fails to establish to the same extent. In the same incidental music Segerstam takes the opening Valse lente at a considerably slower speed than Vänskä, moving it closer to the form the music eventually took as the well-known concert version of Valse triste.

It is interesting too on this disc to encounter the second of the two songs from Twelfth Night, here heard in an orchestration by Kim Borg. It makes a rather offhand pendant to the setting of Come away, Death, which despite being set in Swedish translation, remains one of the most compelling settings of Shakespeare I know. I have long cherished the BIS recording of this song by Jörma Hynninen, but the steady-toned Waltteri Torikka runs his interpretation close and Segerstam’s speed here is very near indeed to that adopted by Jorma Panula on his BIS version. Moreover this version appears to be the only recording of the Borg orchestration of Hey ho, the wind and the rain (the BIS edition only gave the original version with piano accompaniment) which although it is not claimed as a première recording would appear to be unique in the catalogue. Torikka is also excellent in the Song of the cross-spider from King Christian II, although here Segerstam takes nearly a full minute longer over the song than Jorma Panula with Hynninen – an extraordinary difference in such a short piece. Segerstam also takes nearly half a minute longer than Järvi’s BIS version of the Overture in A minor, but Vänskä (also for BIS) seems to add three minutes more to the duration of the work; I do not own that recording, and so am unable to discern why this extraordinary discrepancy should arise unless a different edition of the score was employed. The overture itself was never published by Sibelius, who seems to have abandoned it altogether when he recycled material from it for the finale of his Voces intimae string quartet; Dominic Wells in his informative booklet notes tells us that the piece was “written in a hotel room in the course of a single night” although he regards this “legend” as “highly dubious”. The piece is certainly not great Sibelius, but its inclusion here is welcome. As also is the decision of Naxos to supply texts and English translations of all the vocal items included in the incidental music.

The playing of the Turku orchestra is immaculate throughout, and the recorded acoustic is superb. Even those Sibelians who have already acquired the BIS versions will find something in these Naxos readings to be of interest, and those who are unfamiliar with the music in its original form will enjoy the process of exploration at budget price.

The second of Segerstam’s explorations of Sibelius’s incidental music and other orchestral rarities on Naxos fully lives up to the expectations aroused by the first volume. The fact that the sessions were undertaken over much the same period and are issued by Naxos with consecutive numbering clearly implies that we are to take this survey as a unit. The main work on this second CD in the cycle is the relatively little-known incidental music to Belshazzar’s Feast, and once again the main point of comparison is Osmo Vänkä’s recording for BIS undertaken as part of their complete survey of Sibelius’s music. As before Segerstam’s speeds are slower in every movement than Vänskä’s, but while in Kuolema and King Christian II these differences were often substantial, here they are generally only a matter of seconds. Pia Pajala is excellent in her delivery of the haunting Song of the Jewish girl, although other singers such as Anne Sofie von Otter (with piano accompaniment) have achieved even more riveting results.

Segerstam indulges his penchant for slow speeds to a greater extent in the wedding march from The Language of the Birds, taking nearly a full minute longer than Neeme Järvi in his version for the BIS edition. As before, I find this fully justified since it allows us to relish and relax in every detail of the music. Segerstam also takes nearly a minute longer than Järvi over the early Overture in E, although he comes within seconds of Vänskä in his alternative BIS version. Among the other rarities on this disc we find included the late Processional, which also exists in a version for chorus and orchestra but is here heard in a purely orchestral form. Naxos again score points by including the text and English translation for the solo vocal item here, and the notes by Dominic Wells – and the beautiful cover photography – add to the value of this issue.
This third issue in the consecutively numbered Naxos series of Sibelius incidental music and other rarities under the baton of Leif Segerstam continues to provide much pleasure and some considerable moments of insight. The music for Pelléas et Mélisande is probably the best-known of Sibelius’s theatre scores, not least for the continuing use of the opening movement (in Beecham’s recording) for the BBCTV series The sky at night, still continuing its series of monthly broadcasts after over fifty years. Those familiar with the Beecham recording, with which I grew up, may consider Segerstam’s more laid-back approach (his speed is only marginally slower) to lack the sense of romantic passion to be found on the old version; but Segerstam’s approach comes closer to mirroring the atmosphere of Maeterlinck’s play, and also supplies the additional movements from the original score which Beecham’s recording of the orchestral suite extracted by the composer omits. These include the haunting song The three blind sisters which was added by Maeterlinck for the 1898 London production of the play, and set then by Fauré in English translation; here it is given in Swedish translation, and as before Naxos provide text and English versions — for which they honourably acknowledge the permission of BIS, who presumably originally commissioned them for their complete Sibelius edition which also included the Scène pastorale sometimes known by its English title of In olden times.

BIS’s Sibelius edition also provides the principal point of comparison with Segerstam, and once again it is the latter who takes considerably more time over the music than Osmo Vänskä – nearly a minute longer in the opening At the castle gate and well over a minute for the closing Death of Mélisande, although the differences are less extreme elsewhere. Once again the more considered approach of Segerstam pays real dividends, enabling us to appreciate the subtleties of Sibelius’s scoring and not afraid to risk sounding boring, trusting instead to the composer’s subtle sense of timing. Sibelius marks At the castle gate, for example, with the instruction Grave e largamente with a daringly slow metronome mark; Segerstam observes this to the letter especially when the composer marks every note of the opening phrases with a tenuto marking; Vänskä ia considerably faster than the metronome mark, and although this moves the music onward more purposefully it is not what the composer seems to have sought.

It is valuable, too, on this release to have the three component parts of Sibelius’s Op.96 presented as a unified whole. As Dominic Wells observes in his booklet notes, these three disparate pieces — the outer movements originally written for piano, and the central Autrefois subsequently transcribed for that instrument — are not a particularly well-assorted trio, but they are well worth hearing. The Musik zu einer Szene was subsequently revised to become the Dance-Intermezzo, although it is hardly better-known in that guise than in its original version heard here. The late Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakob von Julin is, like many of Sibelius’s pieces from the final period of his life, a money-spinner written to raise cash for a charitable cause, in this case a children’s hospital. The waltz theme by a Finnish industrialist — and friend of General Mannerheim — is treated as perfunctorily as it deserves, but it is gratifying to learn that the manuscript (and a later piano transcription) raised a substantial sum of cash for its good cause.

I am given to understand that we can expect a further three CDs in this series, which will presumably include such major scores as Everyman and The Tempest. If they are anything like as good as these first three, it will be an experience to relish. There are many excellent recordings in the catalogue of Pelléas, but this belongs up there with the best.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous reviews: John Whitmore (Kuolema & Belshazzar) ~~ Gwyn Parry-Jones (Pelleas)



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