SIBELIUS: Belshazzar’s Feast, Scène de Ballet, Cortège and other works for the stage – Turku Philharmonic Orch., Leif Segerstam – Naxos

by | May 8, 2016 | Classical CD Reviews

A wide-ranging and enjoyable tour of Sibelius’ music for the theatre, conducted by Leif Segerstam with the Turku Philharmonic.

JEAN SIBELIUS: Belshazzar’s Feast, Scène de Ballet, Cortège and other works for the stage – Turku Philharmonic Orch., Leif Segerstam/ Pia Pajala, sop. – Naxos 8.573300, 63:01 *****:

The feature work on this all-Sibelius (1865 – 1957) album is Belshazzar’s Feast, The original story is from the Old Testament Book of Daniel and tells of the King of Babylon and a Jewish girl sent to assassinate him. She eventually succeeds but not before the two fall in love. His death is foretold by a mysterious hand appearing during a banquet to write his destiny on the wall. The libretto for this gory tale is by Sibelius’ friend, poet and journalist Hjalmar Procopé. Among the eleven tracks of this complete score, two very pleasant dances feature prominently – The Dance of Life and The Dance of Death. The only vocal item on the whole album is the wonderful Song of the Jewish Girl, sung by mezzo Pia Pajala. She’s an expert in Finnish, and in Sibelius, and it shows. She is featured in his Pelléas et Mélisande on several other Naxos disks.

The album opens with two items that Sibelius conceived in 1891 as movements in his first symphony. He re-titled them Overture in E Major and Scène de Ballet when he lost confidence in his mastery of the symphonic form. He seems to have regained it quickly though, because his real first symphony was completed before the end of that year. The Overture is brisk and almost British, and begs the question “Overture to what?” The Scène de Ballet begins in discord, and continually entertains the listener with a Viennese-waltz lilt but with sinister undertones (like Ravel’s La Valse). The final four tracks are in a curious, non-chronological order: Die Sprache der Vogel (The Language of Birds), a so-called Wedding March from 1911. Written to accompany a play by Sibelius’ friend Adolph Paul, it is not at all march-like. Next is Cortège (1905), based on a theme that the composer recycled several times. Then Menuetto (1894) which began life as a student exercise in piano composition, and finally Processional, written when Sibelius was 73! So the myth is untrue that he wrote nothing after the Seventh Symphony. In truth he composed many pieces, in all genres and mostly small formats. The last three tracks here are all joyous and lively, counter to the somber mood we tend to associate with Sibelius’ tone poems and symphonies.

For most of the last millennium, Finland was part of Sweden. Sibelius grew up speaking Swedish, so it’s ironic that he’s so identified with Finnish nationalism. The key influence on his transformation was his wife Aino and her brothers, the Järnefelts. Finland became a Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire until the Russian Revolution. Czar Alexander I moved the capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to bring it closer to St. Petersburg and further from Sweden. Turku is now Finland’s sixth largest city, but has a marvelous orchestra. Founded as the Turku Musical Society in 1790, it is the oldest in Finland, and, as the Turku Philharmonic, is an award winner and pioneer in making classical music more accessible – with live-streaming throughout the world, and access to concerts online in hospitals, residential care homes and schools.

The conductor on this disc is the larger-than-life Leif Segerstam. If you haven’t seen him conduct it’s worth looking on YouTube for “Segerstam/Scheherazade/ Sinfonica de Galicia” (and stick around for the final movement where he sings). He has conducted and recorded around the world since 1963, and is now the Chief Conductor Emeritus of the Helsinki Philharmonic. And speaking of large, Segerstam is also a prolific composer, with 296 symphonies to his credit as of last month. The performance and sound on this disc are outstanding, done in Turku’s Concert Hall in January 2014. Notes and packaging are also excellent, up to Naxos’ standards.

I recommend this album highly as providing another important facet through which to explore and enjoy the music of Jean Sibelius.

—Paul Kennedy

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