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Briefly Noted: 'Pélleas' and More

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Sibelius, Music for the Theater, Vol. 3, Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released on August 14, 2015)
Naxos 8.573301 | 57'49"

[Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 | Vol. 6]
Sibelius's score for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande is likely his most famous work of incidental music. It is heard most often, though, in the suite version, as when Leonidas Kavakos conducted it with the National Symphony Orchestra earlier this year. The suite has almost all of the music Sibelius wrote for the play, shortly after his move to Järvenpää in 1904, in a Swedish translation by Bertel Gripenberg premiered at Helsinki's Swedish Theater in 1905. Segerstam instead performs the original score, including the sixth number missing from the suite, Mélisande’s song in Scene 2 ("De trenne blinda systrar" [The Three Blind Sisters]), sung here by soprano Pia Pajala.

As noted before, this is a mesmerizing score, with poignant English horn solos (the instrument representing Mélisande in the score) and unsettled orchestral effects that capture the disturbing quality of life in Allemonde, which appears normal but is anything but -- a score that all film composers should study closely. The third number, for the fourth scene in Act I, is set at the sea's edge, with a tidal motif in the muted strings, alternating between two dominant seventh chords with roots a tritone apart (B-flat and E) over a pedal point on D (the section is nominally in D minor, although a cadence in that key never materializes). Periodically, Sibelius creates a shivering effect for the cold winds that come from the sea, combining a roll on the bass drum (played with timpani mallets), a low-set run in the first violins, and a tremolo played near the bridge by the double basses. Segerstam and his musicians capture this effect with spine-tingling subtlety, and there are many others one could mention.

Of the other five pieces that round out this volume, only one, Musik zu einer Szene, was intended to accompany a theatrical scene, a piece quite redolent of Tchaikovsky and that Sibelius later made into a version for piano. Two waltzes and a little Romantic piece are later orchestrations of piano works or otherwise not of great interest. Pajala is joined by mezzo-soprano Sari Nordqvist for Autrefois, a setting for two voices and orchestra of a poem by Hjalmar Procopé in the same Symbolist fairy-tale vein as Maeterlinck.

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