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Briefly Noted: More of Segerstam's Sibelius

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Sibelius, Incidental Music, Vol. 5, Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released on October 9, 2015)
Naxos 8.573341 | 63'34"
The disc under review yesterday is the latest in a series devoted to Sibelius's music for the theater from Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra. I have been working my way backwards through it -- currently it numbers six discs -- and it is all quite wonderful. Some of these pieces are better known than others, but many are tiny fragments one never hears.

Sibelius's best-known incidental music is likely that for Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. The actress who played Mélisande in the performances when that music was premiered, Harriet Bosse, eventually married the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. When Strindberg wrote a play called Svanevit (Swanwhite) for her, she convinced him to commission the incidental music from Sibelius. Sibelius himself conducted the score, a horn call and thirteen short pieces, at the premiere production in 1908, at Helsinki's Swedish Theater, where there was a small ensemble of thirteen musicians. Since the play is in the same Symbolist vein as Maeterlinck's Pelléas, a fairy tale about a princess named Swanwhite, Sibelius's score has much the same feeling of gloom. Magical scenes receive delightful coloristic episodes in the music, like Swanwhite's enchanted harp that plays by itself. Segerstam uses the slightly expanded version of the score, revised by Sibelius after the play's premiere, included the organ part added to the last movement -- but not the suite version, with its other added instruments.

The other longer incidental score on this disc is for Mikael Lybeck's play Ödlan (The Lizard). Premiered in 1910, this play is also a Symbolist-tinged fairy tale, with a nobleman torn between the influence of his pure betrothed, Elisiv, and an evil woman named Adla, who is costumed in a lizard dress. The score is intensely beautiful, especially the second piece, which lasts over twenty minutes, although it is scored for small string orchestra (Sibelius specified that it could be played by only nine musicians). These longer scores are complemented by two short pieces intended to be played as musical narration to the recitation of poems: Ett ensamt skidspår (The Lonely Ski Trail), in the version for harp, narrator, and strings; and Grevinnans konterfej (The Countess's Portrait), for strings orchestra. Finnish actor Riko Eklundh reads the texts of Bertel Gripenberg and Zachris Topelius, both Finnish poets who wrote in Swedish.

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