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Briefly Noted: Sibelius's 'Scaramouche'

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Sibelius, Scaramouche (complete ballet), B. Goldstein, R. Ruottinen, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, L.Segerstam

(released on November 13, 2015)
Naxos 8.573511 | 71'
One of my interests is lesser-known ballet scores of the 20th century, like those of Paul Hindemith and Debussy's Jeux. Sibelius composed the score of Scaramouche, his op. 71, as accompaniment to a tragic pantomime by Poul Knudsen. Begun in 1912, the work was not premiered until 1922, at Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen. The roles were performed by dancer-actors, although it was not a ballet in the classical sense (see some filmed excerpts): Knudsen even provided lines for the characters to speak, a change to the original plan of which Sibelius did not approve. The title character is a dwarf with a hunched back, and he plays a magical viola that hypnotizes a beautiful woman named Blondelaine, causing her to abandon her husband, Leilon, during an all-night party at Leilon's house in the country. When Blondelaine is freed from Scaramouche's power, she kills him with her husband's dagger. The dwarf's spirit, incarnated by the sound of his viola, accuses her from beyond the grave, and Blondelaine falls dead, causing Leilon to go mad.

The delightful score is for chamber orchestra, mostly woodwinds and strings, joined by four horns and piano, but Sibelius creates a wonderful tapestry of sound with these limited forces. In addition to the orchestra in the pit, groups of instruments perform on stage and behind the stage as well, including the piano supposedly played by Leilon in the final scene; a trumpet is heard off-stage in Act II, the post horn signaling that a coach is about to leave the house as the party winds down. The Finnish conductor and runaway symphonist Leif Segerstam leads members of his new band, the Turku Philharmonic, in what may be the most complete recorded version of the score to date, and a fine one besides. (Neeme Järvi's premiere recording of the work, for BIS with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, is several minutes shorter; Jussi Jalas made his own twenty-minute condensed version, which he recorded with the Hungarian State Symphony.) Here we get the music without the spoken lines indicated by Knudsen, and the results suggest that a savvy choreographer should make a ballet version of the piece. The score has turns both neoclassical and chillingly dissonant, with lots of scordatura-like chromaticism to evoke the devilish nature of Scaramouche, the evil musician.

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