Classical music listeners are always listening to 'incidental music', like Grieg's for Peer Gynt - but do we stop to think about what it actually was? Before this, I certainly hadn't. It was played during stage dramas, to cover scene transitions or, sometimes, to underscore critical bits of dialogue, and was played by a real live orchestra, if a small one. Some modern plays still use incidentals, although it might be on recorded tracks rather than played fresh each performance; the background scores of movies serve a similar function.
The analogy with film music came to mind in Sibelius's Pelléas suite, composed for Maeterlinck's play. The music tends to the overtly pictorial, and some of the briefer movements, like film tracks, end in mid-air, unresolved. (Like film tracks, bits of incidental music don't require symphonic development.) After the rugged chorales of the opening At the Castle Gate, the movements alternately suggest a stoic desolation, concealing turbulence.
Listen — Sibelius: The Three Blind Sisters (Pelléas et Mélisande)
(ODE 1404-2 track 11, 0:00-0:40) ℗ 2022 Ondine Oy :
There's also lighter, more melodic music reflecting the young Melisande.
Listen — Sibelius: Pastorale (Pelléas et Mélisande)
(ODE 1404-2 track 12, 0:06-0:39) ℗ 2022 Ondine Oy :
The suite culminates in an elegiac yet flowing Death of Mélisande, with the maggiore passage at 3:18 reflecting a typically Sibelian ambivalence: the great melody is a threnody, yet suggests a tentative uplift.
Listen — Sibelius: The Death of Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande)
(ODE 1404-2 track 15, 0:01-0:44) ℗ 2022 Ondine Oy :
Collon does a wonderful job realizing the character of each movement, and the playing is gorgeous.
The King Christian II music sounds more substantial, better able to stand on its own without the accompanying drama. The opening chorale, while pretty, isn't hushed enough; but the violins' broad, serene melody, answered by dancing figures, and its recapitulation with added woodwinds are both quite fetching. The subsequent movements offer a finer hush and greater transparency, as needed. I enjoyed the dusky lower strings in the Élégie; the chirpy woodwinds in the Musette suggest folk music, even if Collon momentarily bobbles the scansion.
Listen — Sibelius: Musette (King Christian II)
(ODE 1404-2 track 4, 0:01-0:32) ℗ 2022 Ondine Oy :
The Serenade offers some typically brassy, stoic climaxes, and the conductor's infectious energy helps maintain interest in the final Ballade - it reminded me of Lemminkäinen's Return.
Listen — Sibelius: Ballade (King Christian II)
(ODE 1404-2 track 6, 0:00-0:57) ℗ 2022 Ondine Oy :
The one-movement Seventh Symphony, which leads off, gets top billing - it's clearly supposed to be the 'main course' - but it disappoints. To be sure, Collon builds it spaciously, and again nails many details: secondary syncopations pulse forward without producing actual speed, and the central Vivacissimo has a nice dramatic intensity. The waltzlike motifs of the Allegro moderato are shapely, but the peak, when it arrives, doesn't really quite land.
Listen — Sibelius: Symphony No 7
(ODE 1404-2 track 1, 16:17-17:14) ℗ 2022 Ondine Oy :
Both the climactic tuttis, in fact, sound comparatively unorganized and indiscriminate, lacking the sense of purpose with which the conductor had set them up.
There you have it. The Pelléas is first-class, the King Christian very good; but, against the recorded competition, the symphony stacks up just so-so. Perhaps selective downloading is the answer. Meanwhile, for the symphony I still like Davis/Boston (formerly Philips), though the multimiking doesn't hold up in digital remastering; and a powerful Boult concert performance (BBC Legends), worth tracking down. Other installments of the Gibson cycle (Chandos) are very good, but I've not heard his Seventh.
Copyright © 30 November 2022
Stephen Francis Vasta,
New York, USA
CD INFORMATION: SIBELIUS - NICHOLAS COLLON