More Excellent Rare Sibelius from Segerstam on Naxos

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This releases continues Segerstam’s so far excellent survey of Sibelius’ complete incidental music coupled to other rare works. Belshazzar’s Feast works better in its complete form than many other such pieces: it has eleven short movements, including “Song of the Jewish Girl” setting the familiar lament “By the waters of Babylon.” A couple of the dances return at the end giving the work a semblance of form, and there are a few extra bits that didn’t make it into the more familiar suite, such as the exotic number simply marked “Allegretto” (sound clip). In short, this is worth hearing.

The remaining items also are of unusual interest. The Overture in E major and Scène de Ballet both date from 1891 and comprise Sibelius’ earliest orchestral works. Both are worth hearing, not so much because they sound like the later composer (they have moments), but because despite their immaturity, they still don’t sound like anyone else. Scène de Ballet, in particular, features very curious scoring for castanets and suspended cymbal, while the overture is a surprisingly big work–almost twelve minutes–with some attractive if relatively anonymous melodic invention.

The Wedding March is all that Sibelius wrote as incidental music to play called The Language of the Birds. Its date, 1911, signals a fully mature piece, and the music is not really a march at all–more a miniature tone poem with some of the harmonic strangeness of The Bard and the Fourth Symphony, which come from the same period. You might feel that the Cortège also needs a new name: it’s actually an ebullient Polonaise in triple time, and again, surprisingly substantial. This music found a later home in both the Scènes historiques and The Tempest.

Sibelius used bits of the Menuetto in the King Christian II music, but this larger orchestration from 1894 is absolutely delightful (sound clip). What a great encore this would make in concert. Segerstam concludes the program with the Processional, Op. 113, No. 6, a piece that eventually found its way into the composer’s collection of Masonic music (yes he wrote some, even if no one knows it). It’s suitably dignified and brings the program to a very satisfying close.

As with previous releases in this series, the performances are just about as good as it gets. Segerstam plays all of the music with evident care and invests it with plenty of character. He has the Turku Philharmonic responding to his every whim, and if some of these “chips off of the master’s workbench” remain rather “chippy,” well, that’s the composer’s fault. At least they leave us wanting more. Pia Pajala is the attractive soprano soloist in her single song, and the engineering is rich, warm, and atmospheric. Worth your time and attention, no doubt about it.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None

    Belshazzar's Feast (complete); Overture in E major; Scène de Ballet; Wedding March; Cortège; Menuetto; Processional

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