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Briefly Noted: Writing on the Wall

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Sibelius, Music for the Theater, Vol. 2, Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released on July 10, 2015)
Naxos 8.573300 | 63'01"

[Vol. 3 | Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 | Vol. 6]
Sibelius actually composed the incidental music for Belshazzar's Feast after that for Pelléas et Mélisande, under review yesterday. The formula for Leif Segerstam's definitive collection of discs devoted to Sibelius's theatrical music has generally focused each volume on a major work of incidental music, rounded out with little pieces that may or not have had their genesis in the theater.

The centerpiece here is the incidental music for Belshazzar's Feast, a play by Sibelius's friend Hjalmar Procopé for the Swedish Theater in Helsinki, produced in 1906. The story follows Leschanah, a Jewish woman sent to assassinate Belshazzar, king of Babylon. The best numbers are early in the score, especially a lovely flute solo with delectable harmony in the prelude ("Nocturno") for Act II, as Leschanah listens to the royal palace at night, seduced by the king's power. Soprano Pia Pajala sings the mournful Song of the Jewish Girl, a paraphrase of Psalm 137 in a way similar to Verdi's chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco. Less memorable is the dance music to accompany Leschanah's attempt to displace the king's favorite slave girl, Khadra.

The disc opens with a barn-storming overture that is a fun listen, paired here with a Scène de ballet, both of which Sibelius drafted in 1891 as movements for an aborted attempt at a first symphony. (This makes for a fascinating comparison with his actual first symphony, finished in 1899 and revised in 1900.) The dance especially has a sort of eastern flavor in its melodic nuances and percussion choices, which make suitable companions for Belshazzar's Feast. Sounding more like the Sibelius we all think we know is a short "Wedding March" (not really what it sounds like), composed for Adolf Paul's play Die Sprache der Vögel in 1911. Segerstam rounds out this volume with a couple of other short processional pieces. The most curious of them is a "Processional," first composed in the 1920s for Finland's new Masonic Lodge, where Sibelius was a member.

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