SIBELIUS: Scaramouche – Soloists/ Turku Philharmonic Orch./Leif Segerstam – Naxos

by | Mar 17, 2016 | Classical CD Reviews

Sibelius’ colorful theatrical score resplendently revealed.

JEAN SIBELIUS: Scaramouche – Bendik Goldstein, viola – Roi Ruottinin, cello/ Turku Philharmonic Orch./Leif Segerstam – Naxos 8.573511, 71:01, *****:

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote a large amount of music for the theatrical stage that deserves to be heard, and recordings are virtually the only way to hear them, unless you are fortunate enough to live in Finland. Most of these scores fall into the category of incidental music for plays and historical pageants—in the form of complete scores or suites that the composer arranged for concert performances. In his day, theatrical presenters employed orchestras to accompany their performances, some larger than symphony orchestras. These scores are the equivalent of movie music of today. Sibelius was adept at matching music with the atmosphere and emotion of a specific scene. His colorful orchestration and instrumental timbre made him one of the few major composers who excelled at writing incidental music.

In 1912 Sibelius was commissioned by the Danish publisher Wilhelm Hansen to compose music for Poul Knudsen’s tragic dance pantomime Scaramouche. A few months later the composer received a revised libretto that included spoken dialogue and music for the complete pantomime rather than just a few dances. Sibelius was upset and wrote in his diary, “I ruined myself by signing the contract for Scaramouche. Today things became so heated that I smashed the telephone. My nerves are in tatters.” But he persisted and completed the work. It wasn’t performed until 1922 and again in 1923. In his diary Sibelius commented “Scaramouche great success in Copenhagen.”

Scaramouche is a wandering hunchbacked dwarf who plays the viola. He enters a banquet and plays music that seduces and inspires the lovely Blondelaine to dance wildly, to the consternation of her husband Leilon and the surprised guests. Scaramouche is asked to leave, but he continues to play and Blondelaine follows his sound out of the room. The guests search but can’t find her. In the Second Act, Blondelaine reappears in a state of bewilderment and angst, unaware of what happened. Her nightmare intensifies when she sees Scaramouche, who clutches her. She grabs a knife and kills him. Reunited with Leilon, she happily dances to her husband’s music until she sees visions of Scaramouche. Her dance becomes frenzied and she drops dead.

The music is scored for a small orchestra with reduced complement of brass and a piano. Although the plot may seem to call for music of great dramatic impact, it’s a subdued and refined score, the longest purely orchestral score Sibelius wrote. There’s a series of lovely minuets and dances, highlighted by a dreamy melody in the strings that is almost too sweetly romantic. The demonic Scaramouche and the seamy story is captured by tremolos in the lower strings, and dissonances in the woodwinds. There’s a magical moment (track 20) in the strings when Scaramouche and Leilon are touchingly reunited. It’s one of the more subtle Sibelian scores, but one that is colorful and emotionally representative of the story.

Segerstam’s performance is the second complete traversal of this rare score. His interpretation is a bit slower and less dramatic than Jarvi’s initial traversal, part of BIS’s multi-CD set of Sibelius’ Theater music. Segerstam’s expansive interpretation elucidates the details and atmosphere of this colorful score, and the sound is ideal. Those not familiar with the incidental music of Sibelius will find this recording a welcome entrance into his rich and vivid theatrical sound world.

—Robert Moon

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