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CD Review

Jean Sibelius

Naxos 8.573301
  • Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 46 1
  • Musik zu einer Szene
  • Three Pieces for Orchestra:
  • Valse lyrique, Op. 96a
  • Autrefois - Scène postorale, Op. 96b 1,2
  • Valse chevaleresque, Opus 96c
  • Morceau romantique sur un motif de Monsieur Jakob von Julin
1 Pia Pajala, soprano
2 Sari Nordqvist, mezzo-soprano
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
Naxos 8.573301
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Aside from the many CDs containing Pelléas et Mélisande, there is only a handful of other recordings of both the Valse lyrique and Morceau romantique; and only one of Musik zu einer Szene – from the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Vänskä on BIS (1900) and of Autrefois – Scène postorale which appears to be in a piano version also on BIS (1918/20). With Leif Segerstam in charge on this new CD from Naxos, you'd expect to hear top quality Sibelius. And so you do. It does contain the well known score for Maeterlinck's play from the turn of the century and a clutch of smaller-scale, though by no means slight, works both from that period (Musik zu einer Szene) and the "Three pieces", Opus 96 and Morceau romantique from up to 20 years later.

All Sibelius' orchestral music needs a conscious yet almost invisible balance between the depth, darkness and substance which his colors imply, and a lightness of touch – so that it can (in an oft-used term) "brood" without sinking. We should be able to explore northern forests without either seeing them from above, detached, or losing our way in the dark. So the music must never be pushed on us, for all its provenance in the world of drama and rhetoric. Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra achieve just such a balance: even in the less somber music like the Valse lyrique from Opus 96 [tr.12] whose pace is jaunty rather than searing, these forces always make adequate room for reflection and full orchestral (and vocal) color without exaggerating. Indeed, Tempi are on the slow side; the music breathes and seems at times to suspend itself so that we can inhale every ounce of nuance and import of the drama or other magic which Sibelius is so expert at weaving.

It would be wrong to pretend that the incidental music on this CD is particularly profound or far-reaching, innovative or moving. Pelléas provides the greatest substance here; and is the music you're most likely to remember. But it's useful to have the other pieces, to hear the version of Opus 96b Autrefois – Scène postorale [tr.13] for two female voices (and orchestra) with soprano Pia Pajala, soprano and mezzo Sari Nordqvist, although the latter is distinctly under-recorded and hard to hear.

If you only know the popular symphonies of Sibelius, these other works will confirm your suspicions that the composer was aware of – and able to build wonderful music around – other distances in human experience and society than the Nordic wastes usually associated with him… the Valse chevaleresque, Opus 96c, [tr.14] has echoes of the urbanity of Ravel, for example. This surely illuminates a composer, Sibelius, whose reach may not even now be fully appreciated.

This unhurried laying out of the music and its drama have a second effect: we relax and know immediately that we are in good hands from conductor and soloists as well as the accomplished and flexible Turku Philharmonic. Instrumental technique and exactness never suffer or give way to the need to convey the breadth of the pastoral, the depth of the emotional – rather than their qualities as languorous or lugubrious. Sweetness and effect are pushed aside in favor of precision and insight.

At first, such movements as the final andante of Pelléas [tr.10] may strike you as just a little too relaxed. But as Segerstam reaches the final three minutes or so, you realize that he has been leading to a burst of Sibelian color, steeped, rich tonality which might have been lost as force instead of emerging as something precious. He is as expert controlling pace as he is managing dynamics. he reveals the tragedy and pathos of each of these pieces as convincingly as a parent narrator does a well-known story to expectant children, who well knows how their listeners will react. Segerstam jettisons both complacency and condescension in favor of confidence through apparent lightness of touch. Yet it's a touch borne of utter control and familiarity with the essence of Sibelius' (orchestral) writing.

Aside from the excellent Pelléas, the music on this CD may be more of documentary interest than truly endearing or enduring. But it's good to have it available and to hear the layers, the consideration given to pure sound by Sibelius, carried over into the less familiar. A modestly sparkling Pelléas will remain the most listened-to selection on the CD; but the rest is useful in understanding its still enigmatic composer. Reservations about perhaps slightly relaxed tempi are hard to overcome, as is the odd relative miking of the two singers in the Autrefois – Scène postorale; otherwise this is a nice CD.

The acoustic of the Turku Concert Hall in Turku, Finland, is crisp and yet resonant. The nuances of the music are never lost in its spaciousness– listen to the precision of the pizzicato passage towards the end of the opening of Pelléas [tr.1], for example. Its clarity is matched by the roundness of the almost immediately-ensuing tutti climax. The booklet contains a short essay describing the works and their backgrounds with the two texts (Pelléas, "De trenne blinda systrar" from Act III; and Autrefois in Finnish and English. If you're a lover of Sibelius and do not have these particular works in your collection and/or want a serviceable Pelléas, this release will satisfy in every respect.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey