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Briefly Noted: Sibelius and the Theater, Vol. 1

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Incidental Music, Vol. 1, P. Pajala, W. Torikka, Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released on June 9, 2015)
Naxos 8.573299 | 72'50"

[Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 | Vol. 6]
So here we are at last, at the first of the series of six discs devoted to Sibelius's music for the theater, recorded by Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic. (Presumably, a seventh disc will eventually appear with Stormen, the incidental music for The Tempest, the only score not covered so far, first recorded in its complete form by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Philharmonic in 1992.) The first volume includes Sibelius's first work of incidental music, composed for King Christian II by Swedish playwright Adolf Paul in 1898. The eponymous 16th-century ruler of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden had a common Dutch girl, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, as his mistress, for which he is remembered as much as for his part in the Stockholm Bloodbath, the massacre of Swedish nobles who opposed him. The popular suite Sibelius arranged has only five of the seven pieces that Sibelius composed for the play.

The Elegy movement, which served as the gloomy overture to the play, is a consummate example of lush writing for five-part strings, replete with intense, Wagnerian appoggiaturas and dissonant harmony. The bubbly wind-heavy Musette was played by street musicians outside Dyveke's window as the character danced inside, while the Menuetto, played as an introduction to the court scene in the third act, has melodic turns that remind me humorously of Jingle Bells. Baritone Waltteri Torikka, a fine singer, is perhaps too stentorian in the Song of the Cross-Spider, sung by a jester who mocks the imprisoned king in his cell, referring to Dyveke as the spider. The last three pieces (Nocturne, Serenade, and Ballade), added to the score the summer after the play's premiere, have the feel of more symphonic movements that stand quite well on their own.

Just as gorgeous is the score Sibelius composed for Kuolema (Death), a play by Arvid Järnefelt, brother of Sibelius's wife, Aino, premiered at the National Theater in Helsinki in 1903. Heard here in its original form -- played from the composer's manuscript score -- it opened with the famous Valse Triste, during which Death appears to the sick mother of the main character, Paavali, as her dead husband. They dance together, and in the morning she is dead. Paavali's song to the cold, sung as he enters a witch's house in Act II, is no more flattering to Torikka, although Sibelius's settings of translations of two Shakespeare lyrics work better for his voice. Pia Pajola, Segerstam's go-to soprano in this cycle, is quite affecting in the song sung by the mysterious woman who becomes Paavali's wife, to whom a child is brought by the cranes in the lovely movement titled The Cranes, again with luscious string writing. Segerstam opens the disc with the Overture in A minor, premiered in 1902 on the same concert with the composer's second symphony but never approved by him for publication. It opens with a brilliant brass fanfare, transitions into a sort of Galop that is less memorable but fun, and returns triumphantly to that mysterious brass material.

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