SIBELIUS: Swanwhite; Odian; A Lonely Ski Trail; The Countess’ Portrait – Segerstam cond. – Naxos

Segerstam extends his Sibelius commemoration with rare scores of incidental music.

SIBELIUS: Swanwhite – Complete Incidental Music, Op. 54; Odian – Complete Incidental Music, Op. 8; A Lonely Ski Trail; The Countess’ Portrait – Riko Eklundh, narr./ Turku Philharmonic Orch./ Leif Segerstam – Naxos 8.573341, 63:34 (9/25/15) ****:

As part of the 150th Sibelius anniversary celebrations, conductor Leif Segerstam leads a disc (rec. Jan-Sept 2014) of the composer’s assorted theater incidental music, beginning with his 1908 setting for August Strindberg’s Swanwhite. The playwright Strindberg fell under the spell of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play Pelleas et Melisande. Swanwhite was Strindberg’s response to Maeterlinck’s fusion of dream and reality. It is a story in the fairly-tale mold, about a fifteen-year-old princess who lives in a fairy-tale castle with her father, a duke, and with her wicked stepmother, the latter of whom keeps Swanwhite unkempt. The princess Swanwhite has been promised to the king of a neighboring country, but she falls in love with the prince, who is the king’s messenger. The story shares several motifs with the Tristan myth; for instance, the lovers will share a bed which has a sword placed between them.

For the play Sibelius wrote a horn call and 13 musical episodes in the style of Grieg for an orchestra of thirteen. After the horn call we hear music for a pantomime scene, in which Swanwhite and the prince meet. Sibelius wrote an organ part for the end of the incidental music – “All bend their knees as if in thanks and praises” – to emphasize the religious atmosphere. In the central sixth episode, the pizzicato figures describe the playing of a magic harp. The power contained in the harp gives Swanwhite clean clothes and properly combed hair. The eleventh episode is of particular interest, since its material became part of the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony (1915). In its original context the music provides the background for the reunion of the prince and Swanwhite. Occasionally, the music assumes real melodic power, as in “The golden clouds become rose red” and “Now the harp plays.” Consistently, the Turku horn and woodwind effects prove most transparent and resonant, compliments of engineer Sean Lewis.

Sibelius worked on his string setting for Odian (The Lizard) by Mikael Lybeck from 1908-1909. The play evinces a dreamscape to which Sibelius seems partial. Count Alban and his love Elisiv inhabit a realm of pure music. The character Adia, however, embodies all that is evil, and she comes to possess the soul of Alban. Sibelius claimed that “in the dream sequence I can give my musical inventiveness a free hand.” In two unequal scenes, the music presents some arresting harmonies which Sibelius would utilize for the more “advanced” episodes of The Tempest and in his Seventh Symphony. The sheer length and shifting character of Part II, so closely allied to the scenic drama, makes the music eternally rare as a concert possibility.

The two remaining scenes represent brief melodramas Sibelius found to his musical taste. A Lonely Ski Trail (1925; rev. 1948) has a narrated text by Bertel Gripenberg that reads like a cross between Richard Dehmel and Robert Frost. The eponymous lonely ski trail takes on an existentialist depiction that renders it quite ominous. Originally scored for narrator and piano, like the R. Strauss Enoch Arden, the current recording sets narrator Eklundh with harp and strings. The more optimistic The Countess’ Portrait (1906) has a text by Zachris Topelius that celebrates eternal youth and springtime rebirth, “a grace that cannot wither.”

—Gary Lemco


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