Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Scaramouche, Op.71 [71.01]
Bendik Goldstein (viola), Roi Ruottinen (cello)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Turku Concert Hall, Finland, 8-12 September 2014
NAXOS 8.573511 [71.01]
I was expecting the final volume of Naxos’s excellent cycle of Sibelius incidental music for the theatre under Leif Segerstam to consist of the masterly score for The Tempest. Presumably that is yet to come since the generally chronological survey has now expanded to include the balletic score Scaramouche. This Sibelius wrote in 1913, although the ‘tragic pantomime’ was not publicly performed until 1922. It's described in the booklet as Sibelius’s largest orchestral work, which must be intended to exclude the Kullervo Symphony; but the original version of the Lemminkäinen Suite, later reworked as the Four Legends, probably runs it close in terms of sheer playing time. Unlike either Kullervo or the Four Legends, Scaramouche is hardly known at all nowadays. The reasons are clearly twofold. Firstly, Sibelius never extracted any of the music in the form of an orchestral suite, as he did in the case of most of his other theatre scores. Secondly, the music itself is really not very good by Sibelian standards, at any rate for some rather long stretches. Sibelius himself seems to have thought little of it, which clearly accounts for the long delay before the first stage presentation, although its initial success in the theatre appears to have mellowed his attitude somewhat.
The action of the drama is set in the course of one evening and night, with the First Act stated to be set at 10 pm and the Second Act some six hours later. As the title implies, the plot draws to some extent on the characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte; the location is specified as the “country seat” of Leilon and his young wife Blondelaine, whose name speaks for itself. The full score, published in 1918, which runs to 230 pages, specifies considerable amounts of spoken dialogue which is cued into the music in French, German and English handwritten in a very precise copperplate style. The score may be viewed through the valuable IMSLP website. Here, as indeed in the 1991 recording under Neeme Järvi (issued as part of BIS’s complete ‘Sibelius Edition’) and the 1970s Decca recording where Hungarian State forces were conducted by Jussi Jalas (just reissued on Australian Eloquence 4823311 but previous on HDTT) we are denied the presence of the actors whose rather conventional drama provides the raison d’être of the score, leaving the music to stand on its own feet. One cannot help but feel that Segerstam and Naxos have missed a trick here – a version of the score with the dialogue might have been a unique selling point – although one is left to wonder what language would have been employed. The work was written to a text by Poul Knudsen and was first performed in Copenhagen; Dominic Wells in his booklet note does not state whether it was given in Danish (I imagine so), which leaves one to wonder why Sibelius’s (Danish) publisher excluded the Danish text from the published score. Nor is the dialogue, to judge from the English translation, any literary masterpiece. Dominic Wells’s note provides a fairly extensive summary of the plot, cued to the tracks on the disc, which is quite satisfactory.
The first thing that strikes the listener when looking at the score is the manner in which Sibelius disposes the instruments of the specified chamber orchestral forces (including piano). Some players are directed to be placed behind the scene, or (as the score wistfully suggests) to be played as if the oboes, clarinets, etc are behind the scene. This makes for a rather peculiar layout of the score, which is not helped by the plentiful misprints (particularly in the Bolero) which fail to link the two bodies together as they should be. In this performance there is however no hint of any distance between the players onstage and those ‘in the pit’. Nor, to do Segerstam justice, is there much obvious musical reason why the players should be separated in this odd fashion. The weakest part of the score comes in the First Act, a half-hour series of rather pallid although tuneful dances with only the sinister playing of Scaramouche (represented by the solo viola and cello) to provide much in the way of contrast. Then, quite suddenly, as the husband realises that he has lost his young wife to the enticements of Scaramouche, the music darkens during the brief orchestral interlude which links the Acts. We hear a horn chord that could have come from the Fourth Symphony, and Sibelius achieves a real sense of desolation in the music that opens Act Two. Here, too, the solo offstage cornet fanfares are properly distanced behind the stage as specified.
When Blondelaine returns from her liaison with Scaramouche, the music gains in dramatic force; but, even making allowances for the dialogue which is to be declaimed over the orchestra, Sibelius nevertheless rather pulls his punches in the passage which leads up to the killing of her seducer by the errant wife. One can imagine that the presence of speech would lend additional weight to the action here, but also that a stage presentation would do so even more strongly; there are however places where the score indicates changes in facial expression that would go for nothing in the theatre. There are also places where the onward impetus hangs fire in a manner that rather tends to discredit Dominic Wells’s suggestion that Sibelius might have made a decent attempt at writing an opera … if we disregard his early The Maiden in the Tower. His sense of dramatic pacing seems to give way at too many points to purely musical considerations. Perhaps he would have been happier with a larger orchestra than the chamber forces he used here, although some of his effects are subtle and even peculiar – in particular his use of string tremolos played with the wood of the bow, and the onstage piano accompanied by four solo violins.
As always in this series, Leif Segerstam does Sibelius the credit of not rushing the music in an attempt to impose symphonic unity. The composer gives no metronome markings in the score, but Segerstam holds the action together in a manner that would clearly reflect a stage production. In so doing he actually lends the music greater weight and stature than Neeme Järvi at his brisker pace manages to do. Although Scaramouche is a decidedly uneven score that need not be regarded as an essential possession for listeners other than Sibelius completists - most of whom will probably own the BIS recording anyway - those who are curious to hear an almost unknown work by the master will find Segerstam a most reliable guide. I have not heard the only alternative version in the catalogue, a recording under Jussi Jalas with the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, but until recently this was only available as part of a 2015 box comprising 14 CDs.
As we have come to expect from this Naxos series, the orchestral playing and recording are excellent. Roll on The Tempest.
Paul Corfield Godfrey